Hyperfocus is not the same as being in the flow. Being in a state of flow doesn’t carry health risks, while hyperfocus can.
Being in a state of flow (aka “in the zone”) is defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake” (Geirland, 1996, para. 2) (Seligman & Csikzentmihalyhi, 2000) (Seligman et al., 2005) (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2021). An immersive experience where one loses track of their environment.
Once in a flow state, individuals experience mindfulness. The ability to be in this moment, here and now. Not thinking about the future or the past but having the ability to be present. When in a state of flow, we lose our awareness of ourselves as the doers, rather we find ourselves in the full experience of the task at hand. Time is experienced differently, felt as passing by faster than normal (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2021).
The characteristics of Flow include the following (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2021):
- Perceived challenges, or opportunities for action, that challenge but do not overwhelm the individual.
- Clear, short-term goals with immediate feedback about the progress being made.
Hyperfocus and flow share some characteristics such as the intense concentration people experience when in these states. However, there are differences in between these two types. While flow state is an optimum state of being, hyperfocus presents differently, defined as “locking on” to a task (Marica L. Conner, 1994) (Ozel-Kizil et al., 2016). It is the shifting from one task to another that is incredibly difficult, once in a hyperfocus state.
Hyperfocus is one of the puzzling symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. How can a person have an “attention deficit” and be able to hyperfocus? The name Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) alone causes much confusion. Just like most adults with ADHD aren’t physically hyperactive but rather internally hyperactive (Dodson, 2022). Indeed, it might be better to call ADHD, a disorder of, as Dr. William Dodson describes “inconsistent attention” (Dodson, 2022, para. 8). A hyperfocus state cannot be entered into on demand.
Like many things, hyperfocus is on a continuum. At its best, hyperfocus permits an individual to get much accomplished. And in our society, this is a coveted superpower. However, like any strength, left unchecked, it becomes a weakness. Hyperfocus is seen as a blessing and a curse by those with ADHD. It’s a blessing when I need to get things done and it’s a curse when I hear my exasperated husband calling to me from atop of the stairs, “We have to go now!”, for the fourth time.
At worst, hyperfocus is an intense concentration at the expense of the individual’s health. The ability for an individual to be desensitized or unaware of anything else around except that which their attention is focused on (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2021). This means losing track of time, missing meals, arriving late to the next thing scheduled, staying at workspaces for long periods of time regardless of the body sending signals that it is time to move (i.e., foot falling asleep, back hurting). It can also mean wasting time…a lot of time. For example, if hyperfocus happens when choosing a color for a website, one could find themselves wasting precious time set aside to make a much-needed business phone call.
Hyperfocus may look like losing oneself in a task past the point of being productive (i.e., working on a report until 2am). The brain becomes fatigued and productivity decreases, making it hard to argue that sustained hyperfocus is always a benefit to those who have ADHD or ADHD-like characteristics.
The biggest concern is the health of the individual and wasting a lot of time on low priority items.
So how does one manage their hyperfocus?
- Creating containers of time.
- A container of time is having a clear start and finish time. The container of time might even be the length of time you are comfortable with wasting should hyperfocus strike. For example, when doing research on the computer, one has access to many different windows, distractions, “cool ideas” that might lead to something like a rabbit hole, the time container may need to be shorter, perhaps 20 minutes, this way, if distracted and entering into a hyperfocused state there is an end time, an alarm goes off and one is able to regroup. Now if the task is writing a paper, the time container might be 45 minutes so one might be able to enter into a hyperfocused state while writing, then when the alarm goes off, one can assess if they are on track or perhaps even need to change their posture and stand up for a moment.
- Using an analog clock.
- It’s important for us to view time as passing, literally. We do not get the same experience when looking at a digital clock.
- Placing a visual timer that also has an optional alarm in your workspace.
- Visual timers are another tool that is very useful because one can quickly glance up and see the color portion of the clock slowly diminishing without taking the time to register what time is left to complete the task at hand. (i.e. Amazon.com: TIME TIMER Home MOD – 60 Minute)
- Noticing what causes a hyperfocus state and be intentional around when you engage in that activity.
- Social media, a certain game on our phones, one more episode on Netflix…the cost of this depending on when you engage in that activity can be lack of sleep which leads to a host of other health issues if done nightly. There are several apps available to discourage one from opening up a specific app that may be costing time or sleep (i.e. ScreenZen)
- Practicing mindfulness cultivates the ability to notice when the body is communicating it needs a break.
- Taking an 8-week Mindfulness-based stress reduction course (MBSR) is a great way to learn about mindfulness and practice with others in the cohort.
- Getting up, shifting positions, going for a brief walk.
- When the alarm goes off, be sure to move your body away from your work even for 5 minutes. Consider using the pomodoro method (i.e., Pomodoro Timer Online – Pomofocus).
- Teaching loved ones how to best interrupt your hyperfocus allows them to feel empowered rather than leaving them to interpret a lack of response as a lack of love or respect.
- Using touch instead of verbal reminders is a great way to interrupt hyperfocus. My husband knows calling out to me just means we are going to be late. He now comes down to my office, opens the door, and places his hand on my shoulder, no words required. That touch interrupts any hyperfocus and it is interpreted as an act of love as opposed to having a voice yelling at you which can easily be interpreted as nagging.
Tools are great and they have to be used in order to be effective. Ultimately, as leaders and entrepreneurs of teams and organizations, we are always sending a message. Leading by example is the most powerful way to communicate expectations. Communicate you support work/life balance by first caring for yourself and this just may include using a timer to remind yourself it’s time to go home.
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