The Flow of Hyperfocus

Entrepreneurs, creatives, and leaders all know what it feels like to experience “flow,” that feeling of intense focus that is extremely high-energy, yet calm enough to be productive. This distilled form of engagement is a lot like losing yourself in an activity by focusing on it intently.

For adults with ADHD, this feeling of total immersion, falling down a rabbit hole, is nothing new; this is one of our basic operational modes.

Adult ADHD and hyperfocus

I know what you're thinking: ADHD means you can't focus. Actually, though, ADHD, especially in adults, is more about a maldistribution of attention. At times you are scattered as your attention and focus is pulled between too many things, but at other times you experience the all-encompassing pull of hyperfocus. When that happens, it's like your brain is encased in a velvety noise filter; nothing else gets in.

As you might guess, hyperfocus is amazing for certain kinds of tasks. It can help you design an entire website without stopping, create a masterwork of art, or deep dive into tasks at school or work. I have always worked with hyperfocus; I wrote a 250-page Master's thesis, for example, in a matter of weeks, without stopping for almost any reason. Pizza would come to the house, and sit on my desk for days as I worked. That's all that happened until it was done, and it didn't occur to me to do it any other way.

The down side is probably already occurring to you, although it didn't to me. While I did that, nothing else got done. I remembered to pay bills because I set alarms, but no housework, social time, or anything else happened. Yet I never knew what hyperfocus was until several years ago, when I was about 40 years old, and already a seasoned professional.

What does the hyperfocus of ADHD tell people who are neurotypical? That people don't have—or need to have—more or less attention. They need to learn to distribute it optimally and regulate it more effectively.

Hyperfocus in the brain

Furthermore, some research on adults with ADHD shows that we may enter the flow state more easily than others. In certain studies—those that look at hyperfocus in particular—ADHD people have higher parietal lobe activation, not lower, as is found in some other studies. This may mean that the ability of ADHD people to sustain attention as we do in hyperfocus mode is dependent upon context, including things like interest and motivation.

Hyperfocus may also be less a symptom of ADHD and more a response to living with it—an adaptation to being scattered. The ability to make up for splintered attention under normal circumstances by making deep attentional dives successfully under stress, for example, is a reasonable adaptation.

For me, this meant that as a waitress in college, no restaurant could “rope” me. Slower nights were more likely to see me forgetting to complete tasks. In retrospect, I needed the hyperfocus to kick in to enable my best performance, and since waitressing wasn't a passion project for me, the stress of survival was the only way to achieve it.

The lessons of hyperfocus

Takeaways for the neurotypical brain:

  • optimal distribution of attention is the goal, not increased attention overall
  • more effective regulation of attention can help achieve this optimal distribution
  • explore what motivates your own deep dives—what context could trigger a hyperfocus mode in you?