April 28, 2021

Hyperfocusing: When Being in the Flow becomes a Problem.

I have a problem.

All I want to do is write.

My writing has been neglected for 25 years, never getting the time and attention it deserves, and now, I’m finally focusing on it.

The problem is, I’m not just focusing on my writing, I’m hyperfocusing. It’s thrilling and irresistible, and I’m afraid it’s not sustainable.

When I become passionate about something, I’m all-in. It feels almost bipolar—writing in the flow—all-in feels like uncontrollable mania. I will lose sleep staying up all night and waking up early because I need to write about the thing consuming my attention.

I get completely absorbed and lose myself for hours and hours, writing, reading, editing, reading, writing, reading, editing, and editing—and editing again. Day will turn to night and sometimes night into day without my awareness. I become fully engrossed.

It pulls me away from everything else, the dirty dishes piled in the sink and all over the counter, the vegetable chopping that is too slow for healthy meals, the bathing that will alleviate my itchy, oily scalp, the pets who would really prefer to eat their breakfast before noon, the husband going through an identity crisis who needs an ear to be lent.

Right now, as I’m writing, it is almost 3:00 p.m. and my empty stomach is growling in pain because I haven’t stopped to eat a thing today. The times when I do manage to make myself some food, it will get cold on the plate sitting inches from my hands because I get so caught up in crafting my words that I forget it’s there.

This is a problem.

Hyperfocus is believed to be a symptom of ADHD.

What? I have ADHD? No way! I don’t have a short attention span; I can read an entire book in one sitting if the story is good. I don’t know anyone with ADHD who can sit still and concentrate for that long!

Turns out, I’ve misunderstood what ADHD is. A more accurate way to look at it is that people with ADHD have a dysregulated attention system, meaning they have a harder time regulating their attention span to desired tasks.

Hyperfocus is an experience of deep concentration or intense fixation on something that meets a person’s interests for an extended amount of time—like reading a novel in one day and being oblivious to everything else—and being unable to shift attention away from the experience.

It’s the flow state.

You get so immersed in the task that you become one with it, and PET scans even show that the brain in this state lights up with activity and pleasure. And sometimes, people who hyperfocus will lose interest in the activity without any explanation.

I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD, so I can’t say for sure that I have it; plus, hyperfocus is considered a controversial symptom because there is limited scientific evidence—only anecdotal—that it even exists. It’s possible that I’m simply one of the lucky people easily able to get in the flow state for enjoyable challenges.

But, there have been many times in my life where hyperfocus has been both a blessing and a curse, both gratifying and exhausting, both validating and disappointing. And I’ve certainly had some episodes when I lost all interest or became bored, then completely quit the activity, job, or hobby.

This conduct is common among creatives—ahem writers—and if it quacks like a duck . . .

The first time I ever recognized this behavior, I called it hyperfocusing without ever hearing or reading the term because, in my mind, it described what I experienced perfectly. I was making a pregnancy video for two of my favorite people as a surprise for their baby shower. My focus on this project felt much more intense than simple focusing; it was hyper!

It was like I had tunnel vision with the computer glued to my lap and my body stuck in the chair, unable to move for three days. I hardly ate and there was certainly no cooking. I only went to bed when I couldn’t keep my eyes open, then only slept a few hours and was out of bed earlier than I ever get up. Showering was nonexistent, and I don’t think I even changed my clothes or brushed my teeth.

This was the first time I experienced a creative flow state and it felt like a rush.

The ideas and tasks to flush out the theme and make all the pictures and video coincide with the music were just clicking and I couldn’t resist the work. I simply couldn’t risk stopping the flow. And I was so excited to share it with my friends because I knew it was good, and I knew everyone would think so, too. (And they did.)

After that experience, hyperfocus became a part of my vocabulary and also a negative thing to avoid. I’ve had ideas and desires to make videos since, but knowing the editing process is already so time-consuming and that coupled with my hyperfocus, I can’t trust myself to control my flow state. I’ve never made another video again.

Another time I got into hyperfocus mode was when I took a few community college classes in my 30s. For the first time in my life, I was enjoying math! I was even told by a professor that I should consider changing my major because I was so good at it. I lost myself in the repetitious homework and neglected everything—and everyone—else.

I was only taking a couple of classes, but they took up so much of my time that my family suffered. Then, as life often does, it got in the way. My grandma got sick and there was no way I could focus on anything else. It knocked me out of my flow. After she died, I couldn’t bring myself to dive all-in to school again, so I never went back.

Hyperfocusing can cause a new or challenging job to be short-lived, and I experienced that with a corporate position, which only lasted a little over a year. My boss was in charge of a huge project that involved many of the executives and board members of the company. Since I was her assistant, I had heavy involvement in the project, which included a lot of writing, event planning, and traveling to cities like New Orleans, Boston, and San Francisco.

I loved it! I’d never worked on something like this before and I shined. I would get compliments from the executives, and my boss knew she could count on me to communicate well with everyone. There were many times I stayed late, working after 5:00 p.m. because I’d get in the zone and wouldn’t even notice the time going by. I even worked late on my 30th milestone birthday!

The project lasted a year. After it ended, my job went back to being your typical administrative assistant work—scheduling meetings, managing calendars, ordering office supplies, paying invoices—you know, the boring stuff. I completely lost interest and began making mistakes, tarnishing the good reputation I’d earned. A few months later, I quit.

Are we noticing a pattern here? In all of these instances, I’ve excelled and relished in the accolades of others, but eventually quit or lost interest in my passion. I have more examples, but you get the point.

I’ve come to realize that hyperfocusing has been a problem for a lot of my adult life.

For many years, I’ve hated on myself for being lazy and unproductive. When something grabs my attention, something that ignites my passion and puts me in a flow state, I latch on and hold on to it for dear life. I get obsessed, and the accompanying external validation justifies it. I feel like there’s finally purpose to my life and the negative self-talk abates, giving my guilt a break.

The problem is, the guilt eventually shifts—and returns. When I’m unable to balance regular life stuff, I feel guilty all over again. My passion switches from a healthy outlet to a feel-good drug that I abuse. And like an addiction, it’s hard to control in moderation—you either are or aren’t addicted. You either function or you don’t.

Right now, my writing is in the flow and it’s a wonderful, magical feeling. I don’t want to interrupt it. I don’t want to do anything else. But I also don’t want it to end.

I know I need to harness the magic in a healthy way to make it sustainable. I’ve started a meditation practice and it’s teaching me how to be fully present. As I become more mindful, more awake, and more aware through this practice, I believe my hyperfocusing will become less of a detriment to the rest of my life. So I’m giving myself grace with it, for now.

And with that, I’m taking a break to go clean up my ignored dirty kitchen!


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