Oct 25th 2023
Hyperfocus occurs when someone becomes so immersed in an activity that they disassociate from everything going on around them. While anyone can hyperfocus, this behavior is often associated with ADHD 1.
Hyperfocus is a state of intense engagement in a particular task or activity, to the exclusion of everything else. Someone who is hyperfocused may lose track of time and disconnect from everything happening in their environment.
While hyperfocused, people are said to be captivated by the task at hand. Hours may pass, and they find that they are not at all bothered by attending to the same task for such an extended period of time. The term, “in the zone” is often used to describe the state of being hyperfocused .
Anyone can hyperfocus, but the behavior tends to be associated with ADHD. As experts have explained, we have two types of attention: automatic attention and directed attention. Directed attention is purposeful and requires effort; there is also a limit to it .
On the other hand, automatic attention is out of our control and happens naturally. Hyperfocus is a type of automatic attention that occurs when someone is captivated by something that they like. A person may also be able to hyperfocus when there is a lot at stake, such as when they must meet a deadline at work or prepare for a school project due the next day  .
In individuals with ADHD, hyperfocus can arise from cognitive deficits associated with the condition. For example, ADHD is associated with difficulties regulating attention. This means that it is not only challenging for those with ADHD to sustain attention to a task; they also struggle to switch attention between tasks. This can lead to hyperfocus behavior because, once the person is focused, they struggle to shift their attention to something else.
Hyperfocus can manifest in the following ways:
Hyperfocus isn’t always a negative thing, but it can interfere with functioning in some cases. When hyperfocus is used to achieve a task, it can lead to productivity and feelings of accomplishment. Hyperfocus can also help a person to achieve their goals.
On the other hand, if not managed properly, hyperfocus can lead to challenges in daily life. For instance, a person may become so hyperfocused on certain tasks that they ignore other responsibilities or withdraw from relationships.
Additionally, because of the deficits in executive functioning that occur with ADHD, hyperfocus can be a symptom of poor self-regulation. A person may procrastinate with unpleasant tasks, such as reports or school projects, and then become hyperfocused out of necessity just before the deadline. While the work will ultimately be completed, the procrastination can be quite stressful .
Sometimes people use the term hyperfocus interchangeably with hyperfixation, but there are differences between the two. Hyperfixation generally refers to an extreme fixation on an enjoyable task. On the other hand, hyperfocus occurs when someone is intensely committed to completing a specific task. Hyperfocus doesn’t necessarily involve an enjoyable activity; instead, it occurs when a person narrows in on a task they must complete .
Researchers have defined hyperfocus as being a “flow state” in which a person is energized and focused on the task at hand . Hyperfixation is a long-lasting and intense focus on a task, and it often brings enjoyment and satisfaction .
While hyperfocus and hyperfixation are separate concepts, they can often occur hand-in-hand. For example, a person who becomes hyperfocused on playing a new video game is also likely to hyperfixate. Overlapping hyperfocus and hyperfixation is more common when the activity is one that a person finds to be enjoyable .
If hyperfocus is beginning to cause problems at work, school, or in personal relationships, there are strategies you can utilize to manage it. Consider the tips below.
Use a planner or scheduling app to set aside time for important tasks, such as reports, projects, or assignments. When these activities are on your schedule, you’ll be less likely to wait until just before the deadline to complete them. It is important to plan ahead when scheduling, so you allow yourself plenty of time to accomplish a task.
When you struggle to shift between tasks, it can be challenging to incorporate hobbies into your regular routine, while also tending to other responsibilities. To avoid becoming so hyperfocused on hobbies that you neglect important obligations, set aside time for your hobbies. For instance, you might allow yourself one afternoon every weekend, or a few evening hours a week, to immerse yourself in reading, painting, playing music, or watching that new TV series you’ve been dying to see.
Setting a timer on your phone or watch can cue you to take a break from whatever activity you’re intensely focused on at the time. If you’re going to read a book during your downtime, or begin on a project, give yourself a set amount of time, and hold yourself to it. When the timer goes off, this is your sign to shift gears, whether that means taking a break, eating a meal, or spending some time with your family. Whatever you choose to do, setting that timer helps you to shift your attention so you aren’t losing track of time.
Hyperfocus can be a symptom of ADHD, but this isn’t always the case. If you experience signs of hyperfocus and suspect you might have ADHD, it’s important to take a look at the other diagnostic criteria for this condition.
An ADHD diagnosis is based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). To be diagnosed, a person must show at least six symptoms in one of the two specified categories of ADHD: inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity. A person who shows six or more symptoms in both categories meets the diagnostic criteria for the combined presentation of ADHD .
Diagnostic criteria for the inattentive subtype of ADHD include the following symptoms :
Diagnostic criteria for the hyperactive/impulsive subtype of ADHD include the following symptoms :
If you show some or all the symptoms above, you may have ADHD. For proper diagnosis and treatment, it’s important to see a professional, such as a doctor or a mental health clinician, like a psychologist or clinical social worker. With treatment, you can learn strategies for managing ADHD symptoms.
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