Saturday - Entry 24:
Come explore hyperfocus with me today. I have learned something that may benefit all of us.
There is a mystical ADHD superpower called hyperfocus. As rare as unicorns, hyperfocus can flit in and out of our lives. Adults with ADHD are often accused of tuning out, but in reality we are usually hyper tuned in to something that excites & engages our minds. Sometimes hyperfocus is good because we accomplish so much while we are doing it. Hyperfocus gives us clarity and purpose, free from the tyranny of distraction as we bury ourselves into a project and actually complete it.
Last Christmas Eve I had everything laid out for my girls. I was completely prepared for the morning. I suddenly realized I had time for that extra project. I could make those bookmarks for the girls. I began to get excited, even if it was in the early AM. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I grabbed my watercolor pencils, paper, and stencils, marked out my bookmark borders, stared at the page for a moment, then began working in a mad fury. Within 45 minutes the bookmarks were done. I was on fire. By the time the girls woke up, the bookmarks were dry and ready for delivery.
Why couldn't all my projects go that way? I have been wondering a lot about that since that day.
For years I have unsuccessfully tried to tap into this power, but it seemed that the only time that hyperfocus happened was when I was enthusiastic and highly driven. I couldn't call upon hyperfocus to do boring things like homework, taxes, and cleaning projects despite how useful it would be. Enthusiasm was key. Also, hyperfocus wasn't always helpful since I could easily ignore important things going on around me while I was in the zone.
Did I really want hyperfocus with its almost manic enthusiasm and tunnel vision? Didn't I just want instead the clarity that comes with hyperfocus? I thought about that bookmark frenzy and I realized what was different about it than other projects I've undertaken. First, there was a high level of enthusiasm; second, I was highly motivated to finish the project quickly before Christmas morning officially began; and lastly, I could see the end in mind. I had full purpose and focus. Normally, my attention is lost in a fog of noise and distraction. I have to struggle to make it towards the end, gathering my focus like catching an avalanche of bouncing balls falling down the stairs.
Hyperfocus gives clarity; it cuts through the fog. You have a clear idea of what you are doing. Even if distracted, you get back on track easily. Clarity of attention meant that I wouldn't forget what I was doing. I would stay on task no matter what was thrown at me. But seeing the end in mind is usually a result of the enthusiasm and motivation that is part of hyperfocus, isn't it? Then it occurred to me. Since ADHD is an attention inconsistency disorder, the problem was with short term memory.
I have always heard it said that if you had more than three things to remember, you should write them down. Well, the other night I had a whole list of things to complete, but not enough time to do them. It was all written down so I wouldn't forget, but burdened by the list. I wanted to be free to just focus on the important stuff like I do in hyperfocus mode. I suddenly decided to try an experiment. If hyperfocus gave me clarity with enthusiasm, could I find clarity without the enthusiasm if I only tried to keep in mind a few things?
For years I have had one list for the urgent matters, and another task list for remembering everything I needed to do eventually. But even the urgent list would get cluttered. It weighed on the mind. Sure, there were the three top things to do, but then there were the five sorta important things to do and the ten or more not as important things to do, all shouting for attention. It was too much. The list was part of the problem.
So I decided to use Path as a workshop free of Twitter and Facebook distractions, and posted the three urgent tasks as my current project, and decided to focus on those tasks only. Quite by accident I had spun them off into their own list. Then something amazing happened. Despite my sleep deprivation, I kept all three tasks in mind throughout the evening. I had that clarity I had been looking for. And best of all, when I became distracted I would get back on task quicker. It was almost like being in hyperfocus mode!
The problem with the ADHD mind is that it can become overwhelmed by choice or boredom. Therefore hyperfocus is bliss because there is freedom from that mental noise. Hyperfocus is also the reason that ADHD adults often experience depression after success. The clarity is over and our attention flounders. All other times we try to focus there is only fog.
I have tested this out over several days and find this new technique works. Choosing to focus on three tasks only is a way to keep responsibilities in the short term memory, thus increasing productivity. I was very pleased with the results. I finished one list, then chose three more tasks and created a new list. I was even able to switch gears. I don’t know how this will help others, but it may be the ticket to focus I’ve been looking for. Better than ToDos, I'm calling them 3Dos.
I even tested this technique without writing down the tasks—just keeping the three tasks in my head. That worked once, then didn't work afterwards. It seems that writing them down is key for me to register them into my short term memory. Also, sometimes life throws things at you as it did to me during the test. The successful bit is that even though I didn't speedily finish the last list of 3Dos, I still remembered them when I woke up in the morning. That was unusual. Normally I would have to refer to my list.
You may need to keep only one task in that list. Or two. Your experience will differ from mine. And if you can keep 4–5 ideas or more in your head, I'd recommend working with just three anyway. The point is not to prove you have phenomenal short term memory, but to use your short term memory at its max capacity to stay focused on the important tasks at hand. I'll revisit this subject in the next few weeks after I've had a chance to test the system out, but I wanted to share it with you before I did. This simple mental gimmick might be the key I've been looking for all my life to finding better focus and productivity.