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The High Price of Hyperfocus

April 17, 2011

When I was younger I used to kid that I had some form of mild manic-depression.  I could spend 30 hours straight completely focused, writing a paper in college.  No sleep. No breaks.  It was like I was being driven by some external force.  As long as I was working on that paper or that project, everything else disappeared.  Aches, pains, hunger, exhaustion, none of it could penetrate my shell of productivity.

As I got older, the work was different, a project for work instead of a term paper but the results were the same.  I would work for 18-20 hours a day for a week, never feeling the stress, exhaustion, headaches, or tension accumulating in my body.  Not feeling it until the project was complete and then the wrath would descend.  First would come the crushing headaches rapidly following any attempt on my part to relax.  As I would come down from the adrenaline high I had been riding, all the crap I didn’t let myself feel in order to accomplish the task would come flooding in, drowning me for days, leaving me more than exhausting, often barely able to function.

To an untrained person with access to Google, this rollercoaster of high highs and low lows sounds like what used to be called manic-depression, commonly known today as bi-polar.  However, as I have learned more about ADHD I have also gained a new name for this phenomenon, one that fits what is actually happening with me much better.  Hyperfocus.

Hyperfocus is the ability to narrow  focus all attention to a singular thing to the exclusion of everything else for an extended period of time.  For most of my life, I have looked at this ability as a blessing.  It certainly lead to the “A” I got in my History of Sorcery, Magic and Witchcraft class during my last semester before leaving BU.  It had significant impact on my ability to go from an admin assistant to a global project manager in little more than a decade.  It was so much a part of me, of who I am and how I define myself that I explicitly explained to my therapist that I wasn’t willing to do anything that would take away that manic side.

Before I found out I have ADHD, I could only see the benefits of this behavior.  That is common amongst us ADDers.  The inability to tie cause and effect together based on historical experiences can be a hallmark of the ADHD experience.  But the more I learned about ADHD the more I began to see that this was really hyperfocus but also, that hyperfocusing carries a price, a high price in some circumstances. While I may be able to power through 12 hours of work with barely a break, I will spend 8-10 hours the next day barely able to do anything productive.  I get debilitating headaches.  I often feel like I have been hit by a truck or come down with the flu.  And should my hyperfocus event lasts longer, the recovery period will increase exponentially.  This is the high price of hyperfocus.

Armed with this knowledge, I can choose to leverage my hyperfocusing ability when the need arises and when the benefit outweighs the cost.

For more information on this and other AD/HD topics or to sign-up for a coaching consultation, visit my site.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Stacy Kline permalink
    February 15, 2013 10:24 pm

    I also have ADHD and go into HF at work. I get very Moodie, short with people and take it way to seriously. People get very mad at me, they think that I’m trying to take over, or that I have a very get out of my way type attitude. That’s not what’s going on at all. I’m a very very fast learner. I will go into something full force till I learn it, and then get very board. How can I change this behavior so that I don’t offend the people around me. Some I don’t even realize that is what I’m doing.

    • June 28, 2013 2:02 pm

      I totally understand. It can be really hard when people don’t understand your motivations and you feel unable to control how you are coming across. I almost always struggle when working with others because I tend to just take over and do it since I feel like I have the problem solved and know what needs to be done before other people have even realized the problem exists. This has been a consistent challenge as a parent too – to let them find their own way and let them do things for themselves, even if it isn’t the way I would do them 🙂

  2. steph gob permalink
    June 7, 2013 4:06 pm

    I just recently discovered my post-hyperfocus crashes (after nearly 15 years w/ ADHD). The second I slow down or stop moving full-speed at my task, the exhaustion kicks in and I crash… the adrenaline would be great if we could control its release. Instead we get the high and the crash, just as with drugs. Frustrating, but manageable, as long as you are aware of the impending crash. I have had to set alarms to make myself break the focus. Even though I get mini-crashes in doing that, it’s not nearly as bad as a crash after 12-hours of hyperspeed!

    • June 28, 2013 2:07 pm

      That is a great idea for managing this phenomenon – although I know myself well enough to know that I would either ignore the alarm entirely or “just 5 more minutes” my way to the full 12 hours. I used to try scheduling things like appointments or clients in the midst of times I knew would be hyperfocus heavy. My thinking was that if there was something important I had to do, I would be able to stop and go do it. It took me longer than I would like to admit that the opposite was true, I just ended up missing appointments and client meetings because the need and the drive to stay in the hyperfocus state won out over the feeling of obligation. I finally had to come to terms with the fact that managing the aftermath was were I needed to focus my energy, at least for now.

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