I was talking to my psychologist about my ADHD diagnosis, and moaning about my scattered brain, when she mentioned “But then you have the flip side of awesome hyperfocus!”
I kind of brushed it off at the time, and thought that wasn’t really something that happened to me. I mean, sitting down and reading a novel cover to cover, or being unable to stop watching a TV show for hours, or starting a video game and then realising ten hours have passed isn’t really hyperfocus, right? It’s something everyone does, right?
Last week at work I was given a spreadsheet of 1,427 profiles to update. I was told just to do a few hundred over the course of a couple of days, then send it to someone else to do some, as it was a monotonous data-entry task. I did 300-odd that day, which people were quite impressed by (as I did it as well as a bunch of other tasks). I told the person who assigned it to me that I could get it finished within a week, and I didn’t mind doing it.
The next day, I sat down and started doing it, and then thought “Actually, I could do this whole thing today.” At one point, I asked a colleague to guess how many I’d done. “250?” He said. “700,” I replied, and he looked at me like I was mad. I did 1,125 profiles in five hours – and in those five hours, I went to the bathroom a couple of times, got some water, had conversations with co-workers a couple of times, answered the phone… We had a farewell morning-tea for a co-worker, and I stayed there as short as was polite and then scarpered back to the spreadsheet.
It was very repetitive, so I had my headphones on listening to a podcast while I did it. This kept my brain occupied, and probably allowed me to actually work as quickly as I did. Once I finished, a co-worker commented that it was physically impossible to do that many in the amount of time I did them in, and there must be mistakes. I thought “it’s not that hard” then did the math and realised I was updating a profile probably every 10-15 seconds… so I freaked out and did an audit of 50 or so profiles, and they were all fine. “That’s some Rain Man shit,” another co-worker said.
This is hyperfocus, I realised. While it wasn’t necessarily a task I was interested in, which is what is frequently flagged as a component of hyperfocus, I had that one-minded drive to work at something until it was complete. It really was no different to working to defeat all the dragon priests in Skyrim. I couldn’t divert my attention away from it (a co-worker: “Why don’t you work on something else for awhile to give yourself a break?” like, totally impossible to switch attention focus once I’ve started, dude). I went into this spacey zone – reflecting on it, I’d call it pattern-recognition auto-pilot. The data I was entering was very repetitive, and I just had to scan the spreadsheet and the program I was working on in case there was a profile that didn’t require updating according to the parameters I was matching the profile against. There wasn’t any requirement to invest energy into thinking about what I was doing, and so I could just let my brain drift and my fingers type (I’m a very fast touch-typer).
Hyperfocus is easy when it is something I am interested in, like a game or a book or knitting. In that case, for me, it I think it borders on “super obsessive” to a point where it’s not really healthy or productive. I also tap into this hyperfocus at times of pressure. I’ve always found it difficult to focus on an assignment until the very last minute, at which point I sit down for eight hours and bang it out. I would love to not be able to do this. I’d love to be able to tap into hyperfocus right now to work on my assignment due in three weeks (ironically, I’m doing it on a study about dietary interventions in children with ADHD…) but instead my brain is like HEY! LET’S NOT DO THAT! LET’S JUST PLAY GAMES ON OUR PHONE!!! Maybe I need to work on strategies to balance the hyperfocus and the scatterbrain, so I can do what needs to be done when I’d like to do it, and I can stop doing less productive things instead of waking up and realising I’ve spent 167 hours so far this year playing Stardew Valley…