Picture this: You’re knee-deep in a business plan, totally engrossed in your work. The world outside doesn’t exist. Hours pass by like minutes. Before you know it, the entire day has slipped away. This state of otherworldly attention is hyperfocus, a common occurrence among entrepreneurs with ADHD.
Sure, you may know what hyperfocus is, but do you know why it happens? While there isn’t a true answer yet, there are some decent theories. But why is it important anyway?
Understanding your hyperfocus better is the first step in learning how to identify it when it happens and harness it for business success.
So, let’s get into the theories. There are three main ones that may explain why hyperfocus happens.
1. The Thrill of the Reward
One word that you may have learned, or will learn is very important to ADHD people is: Dopamine. It’s a chemical in our brains that transmits signals, things like “Oh, this is fun! We like this activity!” or “Ouch, that stove is hot! Please move your hand.”
These achievements can be a ton of different things, especially in your business. It can be gaining an important client, breaking through a persistent barrier or increasing revenue. No matter what it is, the reward alarm bells go off in your brain and dopamine gets the party started, making you feel on top of the world and encourage you to keep working hard.
While dopamine exists in both neurotypical and neurodivergent brains, people with ADHD experience it differently. While neurotypical people usually experience dopamine hits for a couple minutes or so, ADHD brains might decide to release so much dopamine that it’s more like a three-day festival. This is where hyperfocus comes in. Your brain is so excited about the task at hand that you hyperfocus on it until the dopamine wears off, which can last a significantly long time.
2. A Balancing Act
The second theory of hyperfocus comes from ADHD attention struggles. For people with ADHD, it’s hard to pay attention to things mainly because there are usually far more intersting thoughts occuring at the same time in our minds. The theory is that when an interesting task comes along, all that brain noise decides to shut up and let the task take center stage.
It’s almost like your brain seeking to balance itself, taking advantage of the times where your mind is calm. Other times, it’s at the opposite extreme, letting your mind go wild with thoughts, ideas and memories.
3. The Power of Executive Functioning
The final theory has to do with deficits in executive functioning for people with ADHD. Let’s imagine your brain as an office, with different departments responsible for different types of tasks. One department, executive functioning, is like the department right under the CEO, responsible for the activities of the brain that make your day run smoothly. Think planning, problem-solving and sustaining attention. Sometimes, this department falls behind with some of these tasks, leaving people with ADHD struggling in those areas.
With this newfound energy, the executive functioning team works nonstop to get caught up with where they’ve been falling behind, boosting your attention, planning and problem-solving into overdrive. You hyperfocus on that interesting or exciting task to the point where all other ones suddenly aren’t important anymore.
How I Experience ADHD Hyperfocus
In both my online ventures and my current role as a business coach, I frequently encounter bouts of hyperfocus. This typically occurs when I have a clear direction and have made decisive choices – when I can see a clear path ahead, and the anticipation of what I’ll accomplish sparks excitement within me.
In fact, I’ve come to rely on these periods of intense focus as a sort of barometer for my progress. If I find that I’m not entering this state of hyperfocus at some point, it’s often a sign that something is amiss.
It might be an indication that I need to reassess my path and perhaps make some adjustments. More often than not, it suggests that a part of the process has become mundane or uninspiring to me. As such, I tend to subscribe to the “thrill of reward” theory of hyperfocus, leaning into its energising effect to propel me forward.
Utilising Hyperfocus for Success
Be In The Zone
Now, I strongly believe that every aspect of ADHD can both be an amazing asset to entrepreneurship, as well as a hindrance if not utilised correctly. So, let’s first talk about the positive attributes of your hyperfocus. Hyperfocus fuels your creativity, innovation and productivity. During these periods, the things that you’re able to accomplish are unmatched compared to neurotypical entrepreneurs, giving you amazing brainstorming, planning and prolonged productivity abilities. After all, there’s a reason that people with ADHD are likely to be entrepreneurs.
It’s important to make note of these qualities so you know that there’s a reason you’re a business owner: because your brain is built for it! But, there’s an age-old saying that I’m sure you’ve heard: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Harnessing a superpower in the right ways is equally as important to possessing it. If you don’t manage it correctly, it can turn into a weapon for downfall.
Beware The Downsides
So, while we know the positive attributes, we have to be aware of the downsides. Hyperfocus can be so intense that other tasks completely fall by the wayside, even if they’re time sensitive. These tasks can be answering important emails, attending meetings or remembering to stop, take a break and drink some water. Think of it like being so enthralled with a movie or book that you don’t even notice when someone walks in the room.
Forgetting about taking breaks doesn’t seem like a big deal if you’re in a positive work zone, but the executive function department might have taken over with such aggression, that the voices of your “work-life balance” department go unheard. This will eventually lead to burnout, when your brain is so exhausted that the thought of completing any task at all seems overwhelming.
Find A Balance
So, we have the information we need about this power, so what do we do with it? We need to learn how to balance both the benefits and downsides. This starts with being aware when you’re in a state of hyperfocus. Here’s some signs that you’re brain is slipping into a state of overdrive:
- Tunnel vision: You feel more intensely absorbed in a task than normal. Your surroundings matter little, including background noises or stimuli that would normally distract you.
- Time distortion: You notice that you’re losing track of time. You may feel like only a short amount of time has gone by, but you look up and it’s been hours.
- Difficulty disengaging: When something or someone tries to pull you away from the task, you feel overwhelmingly reluctant to do so. You feel a strong opposition to breaking your concentration.
It’s important to know when you’re in hyperfocus so you can utilise it properly. Let’s look at some strategies to harness your hyperfocus for the best possible outcome:
- Set a timer: Decide in advance how long you’ll spend on a task and set a timer to remind you when to stop. When the timer goes off, do your best to disengage even if you don’t want to.
- Take regular breaks: Short breaks can prevent burnout and help maintain focus over a longer period.
- Prioritise tasks: Make a list of tasks according to their priority. This way, even if you hyperfocus on one task, you’re more likely to choose a task that’s critical to your work.
- Leverage technology: Use apps or tools designed to help manage ADHD symptoms. You can find specific ones that help manage hyperfocus tendencies, like Forest or Focus@Will.
- Show self-compassion: It’s important to acknowledge your challenges and provide yourself with peace when you don’t always get it right. Embrace a non-judgmental understanding and celebrate your efforts.
Living with ADHD is a journey, and navigating hyperfocus is part of that journey. By understanding and managing it, you can turn hyperfocus into a unique advantage on your entrepreneurial journey.
As we discover more about ADHD, you’re not just adapting to your circumstances — you’re also part of a broader conversation that’s reshaping our understanding of the entrepreneurial brain.