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How to Use Hyperfocus for Success, and Not Get Sucked into the Vortex

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September 24, 2018

You know that zone when you become so immersed in work that the rest of the world fades away? You accomplish a lot, but you also forget to eat, sleep, or interact with other humans.

 

Then there’s the flip, when you’re working on the computer only to get sucked into an interesting but tangential topic, sending you down a rabbit hole of articles, blog posts and YouTube videos. You accomplish nothing, but boy you sure do learn a lot about the history of Reggaeton.

 

These may seem like two very different scenarios—one productive, the other not—but they’re actually related. And not just because both end with you awake at 2 a.m. tired, hungry, and seriously having to pee.

 

Both are examples of…

THE TRAIT: Hyperfocus

That’s the ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else for hours and hours (and hours) at a time.

 

People with this trait tend to be curious, imaginative, and full of ideas, says Edward Hallowell, M.D., founder of The Hallowell Centers, a New York Times best-selling author and authority on ADHD. They’re always tackling new projects and plans.

 

“The mind of the entrepreneur is like a toddler on a picnic,” says Dr. Hallowell, who has linked ADHD traits to entrepreneurship. “It goes wherever curiosity leads it, with no regard for danger or authority.”

 

“If it finds something it’s interested in, it drills down into it and stays there, endlessly building a sandcastle. A thunderstorm could come up and it’s still building that sandcastle.”

 

That can be good, but only if you sell sandcastles for a living.

YOUR POWER: Your utter devotion to your passion means you will excel at it.

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.

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Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., coined the term “flow”—a heightened mental state in which you’re fully immersed in an activity you enjoy such as art, play or work. It has been described as a state of ecstacy in which your sense of existence is temporarily suspended. It’s similar to hyperfocus because all of your attention is on one thing.

 

Csikszentmihalyi explains that flow occurs when you’re engaged in something that’s challenging and at which you are highly skilled. It probably happened to Mozart when he was composing music.

 

What’s more, an ability to hyperfocus may actually be a catalyst for becoming an entrepreneur. In one study, Wiklund interviewed 14 entrepreneurs with ADHD. All of them described ways in which ADHD symptoms (including hyperfocus) influenced their entrepreneurial journeys.

 

Some of them started a company because of a strong interest in a particular area. Their ability to spend extensive amounts of time working in that area led them to become skilled experts, which aided success.  

 

Wiklund cites the example of Mike Sinyard, founder of the bicycle brand Specialized. A cycling enthusiast, Sinyard began making his own bikes when he couldn’t find the kind he wanted. Now his bicycle brand is one of the largest in the world.  

 

“As an entrepreneur, you choose what you want to focus on,” Wiklund says. “That’s where hyperfocus is an advantage.”

YOUR WEAKNESS: You struggle to transition from task to task, are susceptible to burnout, and ignore mundane duties.

Sustained focus can also set you back when an interest is unproductive, like web surfing or gaming.

 

“A lot of kids with ADHD will hyperfocus on computer games,” Wiklund says. “They might go to school but they don’t do their schoolwork. All they want to do is get home and play their video games.”

 

In fact, some research has linked ADHD with internet and video game addiction and sleep disorders in schoolchildren.

 

And a 2017 study review established a link between internet addiction and ADHD in adolescents and young adults. (It also found that the prevalence of internet addiction was significantly higher in males than in females.) What’s more, the severity of ADHD symptoms—like inattention—was greater in those with internet addiction compared with a healthy control group.

 

The flip side of hyperfocus is what ADHD experts call distractibility—the inability to block out unimportant distractions so you can focus on the matter at hand.

Entrepreneur Peter Shankman has said that he limits the clothes in his bedroom closet to T-shirts, jeans, and button-downs. Suits, sweaters, and vests are kept elsewhere—“because if I had to look at them each day, I’d without question start remembering how I got them, where I got them, or who gave them to me, and three hours later, would be naked in the living room […] having yet to leave the house.” (Mark Zuckerberg, for example, wears the same outfit every day so he won’t waste time on deciding what to wear.)

 

Hyperfocus can also be dangerous when you’re so wrapped up in something that you neglect self-care, putting yourself at risk for burnout. It’s probably not great for your relationships, either.

 

“There’s a time blindness,” says Sharon Saline, Psy.D., author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew. “You get into a tunnel, and nothing else really matters.”

 

One of the entrepreneurs in Wiklund’s study said that he can become so absorbed in crafting customer solutions and creating PowerPoint presentations that he forgets to eat and sleep. In that state, you may also neglect business responsibilities, forget a meeting or miss a flight. This is why many entrepreneurs rely on an assistant or a coach to keep them moving throughout the day, says Dr. Hallowell, though he personally prefers the “Nike solution”: Just do it.

 

“The point is not to get stuck,” Dr. Hallowell says. “You can drill down and concentrate wonderfully well. But you don’t want to spend all day building a sandcastle.”

 

“You don’t have what’s called flexibility shift,” Saline says. “You don’t have the ability to shift to something else. You’re either completely focused, or not focused.”

 

That can be a problem if you only work when you’re hyperfocused, Saline says. “But what happens when you have work to do that’s not so interesting but you have to do it anyway? How do you muster up the focus to work on that?”

 

Returning to the scenarios at the start of this article, both may describe hyperfocus. But while the first may lead to flow, the second is more like a stupor.

 

“It’s all about whether you’re able to turn it into something productive,” says Wiklund.

 

Luckily, the autonomy you have as an entrepreneur makes that totally doable.

PIVOT: Use technology to move you along, game-ify the boring stuff, and let other people give you some perspective.

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Set a timer. Decide how long you’re going to work, and how long you’ll take a break. “What I do when I’m writing is I set an alarm for two hours,” Saline says. “If it goes off and I just have a few sentences to go, I’ll set it for another 15 minutes. And then I’ll take a break.”

 

Breaks are important for productivity, she adds. “When you’re writing or working, you have all these ideas going. There’s a lot of stress on the brain,” Saline says. But when you take a break it’s still “simmering” and new ideas may emerge. “Your brain needs that downtime from the project to actually finish processing what you’re doing.”

 

Be careful if you’re using the timer on your phone—“your phone may not be your friend,” Saline says, especially if you’re the type who’s easily distracted by calls and texts. Try a kitchen timer instead.

 

Enable calendar alerts. “I love warnings,” says Saline, who sets up her phone to give her a five-minute warning before meetings and events.

 

“A lot of times when people set an alarm it doesn’t work because they’re setting it for the time they want to stop, and you need time to transition.”

 

Switch your desktop clock from digital to analog. Are you a compulsive clock checker? This simple trick—which turns the digital clock into a more innocuous icon—may make the clock less distracting.

Use a second web browser. Do all your personal web surfing on, say, Safari, and all your work stuff on Chrome, Saline suggests. When you’re working on a project, you don’t want any other open tabs. And please don’t keep your email open—it’s way too distracting. Check it just three times a day.

 

Game-ify mundane tasks. Come up with a goal and an incentive for achieving it. If you have to shovel snow, plan to reward yourself with hot chocolate after. If you have to work on a budget, watch an episode of your favorite show when you’re done. Then figure out what would make the task more tolerable. “Is it music? Is it doing it for 20 minutes and then taking a break and going back? When does it start to be painful and give yourself a break then.”

 

Keep two to-do lists. One for long-term goals, and one for short-term, Saline says. Many people overestimate how much they can accomplish in a day. They make a super long list, and when they complete only two things they feel discouraged. “The key is making a list that’s doable,” she says. So if a task doesn’t need to get done in the next couple of days, put it on the long-term list to tackle later.

 

Saline has one client who prefers to write her tasks on an old-fashioned paper calendar. Saline uses apps like Any.do and Habitica. Use whatever works for you.

 

Listen to people. Often, entrepreneurs can’t recognize the signs that they’re overworked, but those around them can, says Wiklund.

 

“The example right now is Elon Musk,” he says. “The people around him started saying long ago he was working too much and not sleeping enough.” But Musk didn’t listen, “and now you can see that might be really detrimental for him and his company.”

 

Having a support system in place is important for preventing burnout, agrees psychiatrist Michael Freeman, M.D. “Try to get three close friends who you can tell anything to,” he suggests. “If you have three friends like that, then invest time and energy into those friendships.”