Hyperfocus in people with ADHD
A common misconception is that people with ADHD do not have an attention span. This is completely false. We have a plethora of attention, we just have a hard time regulating it. Read on to find out more about hyperfocus, where it comes from, some common hyperfocuses in the ADHD community, and how you can regulate hyperfocus if you have ADHD.
Common Misconception: people with ADHD don't have an attention span.
Is this true? If you have ADHD, you probably know that this is completely false. This misconception likely comes from the name of the disorder: attention-deficit, where "deficit" means that we don't have attention or that we lack enough of it. We have attention, we just have issues with regulating where it should go. Why is this the case? To put it simply: we have a dopamine-deficiency. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is responsible for things like:
- emotional regulation
- time management
When the brain is short on this neurotransmitter, it makes the person unable to concentrate on things that they don't find fun or interesting. So instead of focusing our attention on things that NEED our attention, we prefer to shift our focus to things that give us a better hit of dopamine. In short, ADHD should definitely be renamed to "Attention Dysregulation".
What is hyperfocus?
It's defined as "intense concentration on something for an extended period of time to the point of time blindness and losing touch with reality or the outside world. Time blindness is basically when you're focused on something for so long that you lose track of all the hours passing by. Losing touch with the outside world can be dangerous, too. This includes things like:
- ignoring texts/calls/e-mails from important people
- avoiding tasks that NEED to be completed, such as paying bills or feeding your pet
- Neglecting basic needs
When people get to the point of neglecting their basic needs while hyperfocusing, they skip meals, forget to drink water, don't take showers or brush their teeth, and/or they don't sleep. This is when hyperfocus can be bad.
“People with ADHD HAVE attention, we just have problems regulating where it should go.”
What causes hyperfocus?
A few things come into play when it comes to the perfect recipe for hyperfocus:
- Lack of dopamine
- Poor time management
- Social awkwardness and social avoidance
Because we lack the neurotransmitter that allows us to become motivated, switch tasks, and prioritize; because we lack time management; because we avoid others... all of those things are the perfect recipe for hyperfocus when mixed together.
Examples of things people with ADHD typically hyperfocus on:
- TV shows
- Streaming services are where your productivity goes to die. You've been warned.
- Social media
- Have you ever spent 4 hours on TikTok without realizing it? Yeah, me neither...
- You just needed to buy some coffee filters, but now you've spent 6 hours comparing brands and reading reviews. You could probably give an entire presentation on coffee filters at this point.
- Video games
- Researching topics of interest
- It doesn't even have to be your passion. People with ADHD will think of things like, "Hmm - I wonder why sloths haven't gone extinct yet. I wonder what's keeping them alive." And then they read 12 articles, watch 8 YouTube videos, and donate to a Sloths Are Us campaign just because.
Many people with ADHD will jump from hobby to hobby to hobby to hobby. Why? Hyperfocus. We will spend a bunch of money on something, put hours of research into it, focus on it for about a week, and then never go back to it. People with ADHD have hoards of neglected hobbies. Don't believe me? Check under your bed.
Is hyperfocus good or bad?
Both - but it depends on the situation. It can be good if it's used to complete important tasks. some people are able to channel their hyperfocus abilities to do just this. And, like I mentioned previously, hyperfocus can be bad if you're neglecting your basic needs, loved ones, or important tasks.
“Some people are able to channel their hyperfocus to complete important tasks."
How do I channel my hyperfocus?
First of all - if you have ADHD and you want to channel your hyperfocus, it is very important that you make sure that you're making the task fun and/or interesting. Otherwise your brain is going to laugh at you and continue doing what it wants to do. So, how can we make sure we do this?
1. Put everything that you need for the task in one place, preferably the place that you're going to start working on it. This way, you can start your task immediately rather than being like, "welp, I don't have XYZ. I guess I can't do this today!"
2. Avoid distractions. This one probably seems like a no-brainer, but it's very important. Put your phone on silent and turn the TV off.
3. Set the mood. Get yourself in the mood for doing the task. For example, let's say you need to clean your house. Something that works for me is watching before and after cleaning videos or pictures. Two other things that work: light some candles and play music that gets you energized to do the task.
Basically, you just want to trick your stubborn brain into thinking that cleaning your house is fun.
How can I regulate my hyperfocus?
1. This won't work for everyone, but my meds help me prioritize things that need to get done. I still hyperfocus while on my meds, but I hyperfocus on things that should have my attention. For reference, I am on 40mg Adderall XR.
2. Set alarms and timers. Before you start on something you know you're going to hyperfocus on, you need to set a particular time limit for yourself and stick to it. Additionally, setting an alarm for this and setting alarms for breaks would be a good idea, too. Make sure you get up to stretch every 30-60 minutes, set alarms for bathroom and meal breaks, etc.
If you have any additional pointers for channeling or regulating your hyperfocus, leave it in the comments! If you'd like to watch my video about Hyperfocus, click here.