Hyperfocus is one of those terms that may see as one of our ADHD superpowers. In a session with a client of mine, we discussed the role that hyperfocus plays in her life and our conversation inspired me to write this post (I have her permission to share our discoveries). Let’s pretend her name is Isabella. The session Isabella & I had opened up a whole new door into the realm of hyperfocus!
“We discovered that hyperfocus has an on & off switch which we can toggle by adding or removing friction and giving ourselves some perspective.”
Additionally, there are some key components that we uncovered that need to be considered when reaching for that hyperfocus switch! Isabella is learning how to harness her hyperfocus and you can too!
Before I jump in and explain the on & off switch there is something important that you need to know! When we are entering or exiting any task there is a period of transition. Transitioning is that elusive space in time right before we start a new task. I was about to write “the space in time right before we finish a task and start a new one”… but here’s the thing: we don’t always finish the first task, do we?! Sometimes, that unfinished task is still lingering in space while we are trying to transition to start a new task. That’s a lot to manage!! It’s extremely important for you to know that transitions are hard! It’s also important to note that when we are transitioning from one task to the other, the likelihood of us getting off track and distracted is very high.
Let me give you an example: my boyfriend, Adam, and I have this ongoing discussion about our phones. We love them and we hate them. We wish that they didn’t play such a large role in our lives! At times, while we are in conversation, one of us wants to check something on our phone – like a date in our calendar or the name of a song that we are referring to. Do you see that the act of checking our phone is a transition of sorts?! Yes, Adam and I are still in conversation together but one of us are simultaneously starting another task. Here’s the part that makes us laugh. Every.single.time. one of us picks up our phone to check the thing that we wanted to check we get distracted! We get distracted by the new text message that’s popped up on our phone or the recent score in a sports game or the email that we had been waiting for.
This is a “failed” transition. Don’t worry, there’s good news!
“You (now) know that transitions are hard, so now you can do something to set yourself up for success and make transitions easier!”
Enter the concept of the on & off switch…
The On & Off Switch
Hyperfocus could be seen as an on & off switch that we have no control over. You know those times where you are scared to even take a second to go to the bathroom because you might not be able to come back and re-enter your hyperfocus or flow?
Here’s the thing… we know that hyperfocus isn’t easy to manipulate but what if we could? Remember that on & off switch… so, what if we figured out a way to turn that hyperfocus switch on and off ON OUR OWN?! Like I mentioned above, transitioning is very important to consider! Here are the key components to keep in mind and accommodate for:
Transition into hyperfocus by removing friction.
Transition out of hyperfocus by adding friction.
The ON switch
Take a second and think about the tasks that you are doing when you enter hyperfocus.
This is so powerful and important! Rather than coming up with a brand new system, let’s emulate one that already works for you!! It’s best if you take a spare piece of paper and write them down.
Now that you have them written down, are you able to find any common themes?
For Isabella, entering hyperfocus is easy once there is a challenge.
For me, in order to enter hyperfocus, I need the time & space to let my creativity flow. I literally picture myself diving in. When I am constricted by time, I don’t feel like my thoughts can flow as freely. So for me, the key to entering hyperfocus is:
Checking my calendar/phone to make sure I don’t have any prior obligations.
Limit all of my distractions. There’s nothing like your phone buzzing or pinging at you to remove you out of your hyperfocus (sometimes if we are lucky, we will work right through the buzzing of pinging because our hyperfocus is that intense!).
Setting a timer to know that I can dive in.
Now that you know the key to your turning on your hyperfocus switch, how can you reframe the situation to turn on your hyperfocus?!
For me, one way to reframe a situation would be to set a time limit. For example, I tell myself I have one hour to make that birthday card, then I set my Time Timer for 60 minutes (making sure the volume is on high) and go for it! In an ideal world there would be no timer and there would be no limit on my time. But hey – this is the real world and this is how I am reframing the situation. For those of you that don’t know, The TimeTimer was one of the first tools that I bought and I actually still use to help manage my ADHD. The TimeTimer helps with my time blindness. Those of us with ADHD do not see or feel time; we are unaware of how quickly or slowly time is passing. The TimerTimer allows us to externalize and actually see time! The Time Timer does wonders for my anxiety because I now know exactly how much time I have before I have to run out the door or transition into another task.
When Isabella reframes a situation, she looks for the challenge. Once she can identify the challenge, her hyperfocus rolls in and off she goes! As an example, when faced with an essay she doesn’t want to write, Isabella challenges herself to link the essay topic to something she already enjoys.
The OFF switch.
You know the things that usually stop us and get in our way from starting/accomplishing and finishing our tasks? Like the distraction of our phone or a family member. Let’s use them to our advantage!!
I know that if my coloring stuff is packed away in a drawer, the likelihood of me remembering it exists and actually going into the drawer, taking out my stuff and setting it up to color is slim to none. I would have to leave my coloring stuff out and have a “coloring corner” if I wanted to remember. I also know that my phone is a huge distraction for me and source of friction for beginning a task – so instead of allowing it to rule me, I’ll make it work for me. I can open up my Daily Calm app and do a 10 minute meditation to help me transition from out of hyperfocus and into something else. I can get a friend to call me at a certain time to take me out of the hyperfocus.
There’s one extremely important part to this that I have not mentioned. Come up with a transition tradition for yourself. Let me elaborate… at the end of the work day to transition to go home, what can you do so that your mind and body know that you are switching gears? For me, this means completing my “last thing” checklist. This is a sort of wind-down exercise that I created for myself to use at the end of my work day so that I know that I have dotted all of my i’s and crossed all of my t’s. Here’s the thing: it only works when I use it! I now have a daily tradition of writing “last thing” in my planner so that I remember to do it (no, I don’t rely on my brain to remember. What a silly concept! I have the “write last thing in my planner” action step in my “first thing” checklist).
“Transitions are so tricky because we can get lost in those Netflix shows and get hooked by social media and lose our precious time. Be mindful of the transition trap and keep in mind what you could instead be saying yes to.”
I recently read a book called “The Joy of Missing Out” by Tonya Dalton and in her book she talks about prioritizing our time and much, much more! I highly recommend Tonya’s book. At one point she says “I want to encourage you to say no to mindlessly scrolling and say yes to walks together as a family after dinner, to say no to TV binge watching and yes to actual phone calls with friends, to say no to opportunities that don’t fulfill you and say yes to your passion project. It’s time for you to go out to dinner with friends, to try that yoga class you’ve been dying to try for months. It’s time to find that harmony you crave – the joy of missing out”. Think about the things that you would love to say yes to but just haven’t found the time. The thing is that you will never find the time – you have to make it! Transitions are so tricky because we can get lost in those Netflix shows and get hooked by social media and lose our precious time. Be mindful of the transition trap and keep in mind what you could instead be saying yes to.
Hyperfocus components to consider:
The Hyperfocus Hangover
When you come out of hyperfocus and you:
Don’t know what day or time it is.
Feel as though you haven’t been breathing properly for hours; you feel the need to pause and take a few good, solid deep breaths.
Feel like you haven’t had anything to drink in days.
Feel overstimulated and like the lights are super bright.
Have completed a million years of work in about 3 hours.
Feel like your bladder is about to burst – how did you not notice?!
Cannot remember the last time you ate.
Don’t want to be around anyone because you feel like a total grouch!
There are just some things in life that we are going to have to do – like laundry or dishes! Refer to the hyperfocus on switch and see if you can reframe laundry for yourself. For Isabella, she can give herself the challenge of putting her laundry away in a certain amount of time. You can say yes to listening to that podcast you’ve been dying to check out and do it while you’re doing laundry! Yes, I know that I am making this sound so simple and with anything there are a multitude of variables. It’s about getting to know ourselves and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work for us. Get curious!
I wrote above about how Adam & I will grab our phones to check something but instead will get distracted by something on our phones. These are failed transitions: we don’t actually start the task that we intended. There is one very important thing to do here… laugh about it! Getting upset and mad at ourselves will not help. Instead, have a little chuckle that your phone successfully distracted you (after all that’s basically what they are designed to do) and ask yourself “what can I do differently next time so that I can successfully transition?” And remember: You probably won’t get it right the first, second or maybe even third time but it’s okay because you are trying!
“If you are continuously trying the same transition tactic and it isn’t working… It isn’t you, it’s the tactic!”
Try and look at the situation from another angle and come up with a new transition tactic that works better for you. A good thing to ask yourself to create a new tactic is “what was getting in my way with the old tactic?”
The Lingering Task
There are times when we are forced to transition out of a task that we have not completed. We may need to transition out of a work task to go home at the end of a work day. We may need to transition out of a task at home – like laundry – so that we can leave for our appointment. Lingering tasks will always be a part of our days because time is not limitless and we have appointments and fixed schedules (like work) to account for. What can we do so that the lingering task does not have such a huge impact on our day that it is floating above our heads and become an obstacle to any new task?! Here’s an idea of a few things you can do:
Snooze the lingering task. This could look like writing a post-it note as a reminder of where you left off and where you can begin. This is also a conscious decision to snooze the task. You have a choice! I’m going to say that again: you have a choice to move on from the task. Sometimes we stay in the lingering task because it is oh-so-much-fun and it is giving us the dopamine our brain is looking for! Don’t be fooled by our dopamine searching brain if what you & future you really wants or needs is to snooze the task and move onto the next one.
Delegate the lingering task. Do you have laundry that needs to be folded? Ask a family member if they have time to finish it. Maybe you have an assistant or colleague who would be more than happy to help you finish the lingering task? Maybe there is a group member that you can ask to take on a little bit more of the work?
Schedule the lingering task. My hunch is that the lingering task well, lingers, because we are worried that we are going to forget where we left off or completely forget about the task all together. Put the lingering task in your calendar/planner or if there is a physical element to the task leave yourself a visual/physical cue like placing an unfinished laundry basket in the middle of your door so you trip over it if you don’t move it! Here is something important to ask yourself
“When we have ADHD, we have the added hurdle of being time blind. That is, the awareness that time is moving forward does not exist for us! It is hard for us to know if 10 or 50 minutes has passed.”
We can use this to our advantage when we turn that hyperfocus switch “on”, but be sure to know when we need to transition out of hyperfocus for a break or to do another task!! We wouldn’t want that hyperfocus hangover to set in.
Energy – This one is interesting… it takes energy to get started but we can also gain energy once we enter hyperfocus, but then if we go too far into hyperfocus it can suck out all of our energy and leave us with a hyperfocus hangover.
Focus – you know those days where we had a terrible sleep, we don’t feel well or our minds are on the fight we just had with our partner? It’s important to note that yes, we are tired. Or yes, we are sick. Or, yes we are upset. And then actively choose to say no to those situations stealing our time and say yes to diving into something for ourselves.
I’ll leave you with one little tidbit. This is something that Isabella and I were thinking about and we never came up with an answer.
Can we enter hyperfocus without being attached to the outcome?
Hold up, Alyssa! What does that even mean?!
Ok, so in coaching we are taught that we cannot be attached to our client’s outcome. It cannot matter to us if our clients achieve their goal of running a marathon or successfully cleaning out their closet. Huh?! Trust me, I’m with you. When I was first taught to remove myself from my client’s outcome I thought it was insane – how can I coach my clients if I am not invested in seeing them reach their goals?! Here’s the thing… if I am attached to my clients outcome then I have an emotional investment in their success. I would become angry or upset when my clients don’t complete an action step or I would become rushed in moving them forward. Removing my attachment to their outcome allows me to sit with them where they are, and dance with them in their journey to where they want to be.
Now that you understand what it means to remove your attachment from the outcome…
Do you think that we can enter hyperfocus and remove your attachment to the outcome?
Or is it the attachment to the outcome that allows us to enter hyperfocus in the first place?
Let me give you an example to really seal that in. Let’s say that you want to organize your closet and you can envision one side of your closet with hangers and the other with stacked blue transparent boxes that you would buy from your favourite store. You are now attached to an outcome. You want your closet to look a certain way. What can you do to remove your attachment to that outcome? You can have an idea but what can you do so that you are not locked into that idea? The reason why it’s a good idea to do this is so that when the store doesn’t have any of the blue transparent boxes you had in mind, you can easily transition (see what I did there) to a new idea. Or if the clothes that you want to hang take up more than half of your closet and the boxes no longer fit, you will be able to flick away those negative emotions that will come up and brainstorm a new idea.
What do you think?
I hope you have enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it! Happy New Year everyone! I wish you all the best in the year 2020!
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