Hyperfocus is linked to extremely hard work and high performance.
It’s also closely related to ADHD, and as such it may be tied to genetics, says Johan Wiklund, Ph.D., a professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University who has studied hyperfocus in entrepreneurs.
Children with ADHD may not make high grades in school, but they can be very high achievers when it comes to their passions. A young Michael Phelps (diagnosed with ADHD as a child) hyperfocused on swimming, and later became the most decorated Olympian in history.
Psychiatrist Dale Archer, M.D., calls hyperfocus a “gift of ADHD.” Take David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue, whom Dr. Archer interviews in his book The ADHD Advantage.
Neeleman struggled in school, but when he finally graduated and landed a low-level job in the airline industry, he discovered his love for airlines.
“In school he couldn't focus on a history topic for more than 10 minutes at a time, but when it came to airlines he could focus for hours and days and weeks and months,” Archer says.
“At the end of the interview, he made the comment to me, ‘How could a brain like mine, a brain that could barely get through high school, be able to come up with a completely new way of running an airline?’ Well, hyperfocus is the answer.”
It’s all about dopamine in the brain, Archer explains. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward, and it’s also linked to focus and attention. ADHDers may have low levels of dopamine, limiting their ability to feel good while performing a routine task. But when their dopamine levels start to rise, “it has a superpower-like effect because they’re not used to it.”
That not only allows them to hyperfocus on their interests but also helps them stay calm in a crisis, Archer continues. “When there’s a disaster and others aren’t sure what to do, the ADHDer’s dopamine level jumps up, and they’re focused and able to think through things quickly and make the right decisions.”
People with ADHD may perform well waiting until the last minute and then rushing to meet a deadline—the sudden rush of dopamine means they can hyperfocus at that time, Archer says.
The trait may have evolved from hunter-gatherer times, he explains. When you’re out hunting a woolly mammoth or a saber-toothed tiger, you need to be able to stay cool in the face of danger. At the same time, the hunt is exciting—it’ll get you pumped.
“For these individuals, life becomes the hunt,” Archer says. “That’s where they’re happiest; that’s what they love to do. Then when they’re back at the village they’re bored.” (That’s also one theory behind why ADHD is more predominant in men than in women.)
Of course, you don’t need ADHD to experience hyperfocus. But it doesn’t just happen, either.