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Honing Your Hyperfocus

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  • What is the distinction between Hyperfixation and Hyperfocus?

  • How do Hyperfixations feel?

  • How does Hyperfocus present?

  • Can I activate Hyperfocus on my own?

    • A list of exercises and ideas for regulating the un-regulatable.

Many think ADHD is a lack of focus—hence “deficiency.” However, the unintentionally kept secret is that we’re actually really, really good at focusing. Just not always on the stuff we’re expected to.

What is the distinction between Hyperfixation and Hyperfocus?

Hyperfixations are different from Hyperfocus. The "fixation" is the subject matter, the "focus" is the act.

Hyperfocus is entering a space of intense focus aka "the zone." It's the brain’s inability to self-regulate; in other words, it's near impossible to shift your attention when you need to an exceptional level or beyond an appropriate point.

The clinical term for this is perseveration, which is defined more generally as the repetition of a specific response. In speech pathology, it can be a repetition of words. In other neurodivergent disorders, a repetition of intrusive thought. In ADHD, it's the constant need for a specific stimulus presented in the form of Hyperfixations.

Externally, Hyperfixations can be viewed as obsessions. They can be ridiculed as unhealthy (TV shows, video games) or celebrated (projects, artistic pursuits). They can fluctuate in intensity, sometimes based on the circumstance.

You focus on something so deeply that you forget to come up for air. You lose awareness of what's going on around you. This can feel awesome or agonizing.

In creative endeavors, it's like your brain goes on autopilot to pour out straight genius into whatever project you're working on. Suddenly, your brain is saying, "Oh, this is what you wanted to do? My bad." and makes you sit down for twelve hours straight until the thing is done. Almost always right before (or even after) it's due.

The downside? Physical needs disappear, there’s only the need to stimulate. This is a high-results, very unhealthy way to be productive—but we’re so good at hiding it or excusing it to our “scatter-brained” work ethic that no one bats an eye. This can contribute to a distorted sense of identity, or impostor syndrome, when you suddenly have to force yourself to do something you flew through only a week ago. It's terrifying.

Hyperfocus can take the form of exceptional productivity in the face of a due date, or watching 6 hours of your favorite show and not blinking at the prompt asking “Are you still watching?" Devotion to a Hyperfixation can grow in tandem with the pressure of impending deadlines. These "unhealthy obsessions" are directly tied to productivity and can have real costs, both externally and internally.

If we sink in too deeply, we can get dangerously close to drowning. I’m trying to find a way to scuba dive. Or better yet, a whole dang submarine with a periscope to keep contact with dry land.

How do Hyperfixations feel?

Note: It's different for everyone--intensity, topics, etc. Do some reflection on what yours could be and research what constitutes a Hyperfixation before you draw a conclusion.

  1. They’re usually temporary. Can last anywhere from a few hours to a few months. Even popping in and out over years. They can sneak up on you or hit you like a train.

  2. Like a lot of ADHD experiences, we feel things deeper. Happiness. Rejection. Shame. Hyperfixations can start positive—like an electric spark slowly growing into a forest fire. But once it’s started, it’s out of your hands. It can die out naturally or need a whole fire brigade to contain it. Lack of support and/or proper treatment can feel like the local government just defunded the fire station.

  3. Nothing else matters. They take over your brain so it’s all you think about, even when you’re engaged in another activity. Being forced out of it can cause irritability and resentment toward others around you and/or yourself.

  4. At its worst, it’s like spinning out on a freeway. Complete loss of control. Pure instinct reactions. Running on adrenaline and/or starving for that source of stimulation. This is when we're most susceptible to addiction and/or reckless behavior.

One thing that makes ADHD minds different is that we lack the impulse control of Non-ADHDers. Our brains are unable to create the chemical that provides those 2 seconds before we say something. (Though, some medications and treatments can improve this.) We don’t have the time to choose if something is worth that time--if we see it and like it, we have to do it. If we continue to like it, we have to do it more. An explanation, not an excuse.

Hyperfixations generate massive amounts of dopamine that are critical in fueling our motivation. (Studies suggest that we have lower levels than other Neurotypicals. It's still fairly new to be proven, but it’s widely accepted among the ADHD community.) Thus, where tasks can seem tedious to Neurotypical people, they are downright torture to ADHDers.

Can I activate Hyperfocus on my own?

In all honesty? I've never known anyone to be able to do this.

That isn't to say I think it's impossible.

I've found that given the right environment and by cultivating the correct circumstance and attitude, we can induce a healthy, productive session of Hyperfocus. My goal in developing myself as a creative is to be able to work without having to brute force my way through something I desperately want to enjoy.

Having to wait for a deadline to drop into that beautiful 12-hour bout of focus can feel incredibly discouraging. It can cause you to question whether you're really cut out for your passion--when really, it's something that can be overcome by dedicated treatment and patience with yourself. Trying to find a way into it is like using a shovel when you need a pickaxe. Hopefully, some of these suggestions can help you find a way to dig underneath that wall instead of using all your energy on breaking through.

  1. Get comfortable. Don't fight it. The first step will always be to recognize when you're in Hyperfocus. Remind yourself that falling into it isn't your fault. This is the way you work, so the faster you stop beating yourself up about it, the better you'll feel. It's important to find some semblance of peace/acceptance to work with your brain, not against it.

  2. List questions for yourself. Set a timer for 3 minutes. In that time, take out a piece of paper (or just stare at a wall) and ask yourself some questions that will help you take a step back and look at the situation for what it really is. There is no such thing as wasted time and 3 minutes is a lot longer than you think. Here are some examples for inspiration:

    1. Am I in Hyperfocus? Check.

    2. Is it my fault for waiting so long because I'm lazy and horrible at being a functioning member of society? As previously stated, NO.

    3. Is it a life or death situation if I don't get this thing done by the deadline? Unless I'm a neurosurgeon, almost definitely probably not.

    4. Does it need to be perfect? No.

    5. I'm in hour four of drawing this really cool piece I thought of today and my hand is about to fall off my arm, what do I do??? Honestly, leave the room. Just leave. Save the file, close the book, and go to a different room and sit on the ground until you've calmed down.

  3. Prepare. If you're needing to go into Hyperfocus to finish a project, prepare your space ahead of time. Set two water bottles on your desk, a couple of granola bars/ favorite snacks, whatever you need to make sure you're taking care of your physical needs. (Drinking water throughout your work will also make you need to pee--which will make you take breaks. Bonus.) It's important to keep other things you may need nearby, like a wastebasket, tissues, fidget toys, blankets, pillows, spare notebooks, sudoku book, etc. because you won't want to get up to get them.

  4. Eliminate distractors. This is another preparation, but it's the most important. This means plugging in your phone on the other side of the room when you mean to work. Most of the battle is sitting down to work. Charging your phone is an act of productivity by itself. Checking it during Hyperfocus may shift it to something more attractive at the time and then 2 hours are gone to Candy Crush. Anything that is more alluring than the work at hand should be put very far away, even outside of the room if you can.

  5. Set timers. One of the best investments of my life is a timer. Physical or installed into your computer/phone/other devices. I do recommend physical because it's easy to get distracted by anything that's connected to the internet. Limit your options to 3, 5, 10, 25 minutes for specific tasks. That way you can trust it will bring you out and you don't have to worry about losing yourself in the project. I use the 3 and 5-minute timers for anything from writing an email to getting dressed in the morning. This one takes practice and might not work right away. It's easy to ignore them. If it doesn't work, that's okay.

  6. Switch activities. Set a goal for two things that day and devote your focus to them. (Easier said than done, I know.) Every 30 minutes, switch to the other so that you don't actually go into Hyperfocus but can still retain the thought process on the other side of that time.

  7. Challenge your anxieties. I suggest looking into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy strategies. One is to open a notebook and write down what you're most worried about--then ask yourself about the validity of that worry and what it's actually doing for you. This also takes a lot of time. It took me almost a year to find an environment where I could work through this and retain the progress I made in my thought process. But even trying it once or twice will do some good in preventing thought spirals and panic of losing control.

The important thing to remember through all of these is that our strategies may not last forever. That doesn't mean for you to go all defeatest on them, but be okay with letting them go or transform into something different that works for you. If nothing works and nothing helps, consider finding an ADHD coach near you or seeking out professional help. Many ADHD podcast/vlogs/communities have Discord groups as well, which can provide a community of others who can help or at least sympathize with what you're going through.

The reason I emphasize this is because many of the individuals I've spoken with have expressed extreme guilt or shame about their Hyperfixations. Because our Hyperfixations have the power to turn our world topsy-turvey in an instant, we feel that they are something to be afraid of. And they are, especially if you're not aware of when you're in them.

Hyperfixation ranks second on the list of most debilitating aspects of my disorder. They align directly with my sense of self-worth since, in the past, they frequently presented as unhealthy coping mechanisms and inhibited my productivity. It takes a lot to break out of them. They feel like they'll never end and when they do, it's in an instant--which is almost worse.

Be patient with yourself. We're stuck with this part of our ADHD for life, two peas in a very cramped pod. But just because it may have the ability to gain control, doesn't mean that it can't be trained. There might be lapses, but it's the effort that we put into this journey that we have to be proud of and recognize.

Every little bit counts for something. Even if you can't see it right away.


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