Hyperfocus is Not Attention Management

ADHD experts call it “hyperfocus,” a word that spellcheck doesn’t recognize. To anyone who thinks this non-word represents only a positive feature of ADHD, think again. While inhibiting scattered attention allows you to to focus exclusively on one thing, you don’t know what you are missing when your “open awareness” is so completely turned off—instead of paused and accessible. When open awareness is locked out, nothing is on the radar but what is right in front of your nose. When excessively focused, you may be productive, but you will lose track of time and other priorities.

Managing attention involves awareness of the state of attention you are in, and requires shifting between an open state and a focused state as needed. Being aware of your state of attention, and being skilled at intentionally directing it, are probably big challenges for you. Dr. Lidia Zylowska wrote about this skill in her important book, The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD.

Not all mindfulness exercises are designed to open up your awareness; some are designed to narrow your focus. It’s like the difference between two camera lenses, a telephoto lens that zooms in, and a wide angle lens that broadens the view. Just as a camera needs an operator to switch the lenses, your brain’s sate of awareness needs an operator to switch the state of your attention.

Venture out and observe how many people appear to be in an open state of awareness….besides you, the scanner. How many seem aware of their surroundings? How many seem to be lost in their electronic devices? Try turning your devices off when you would normally have them on. If it feels unsettling, you may want to practice just sitting with that unsettled feeling in order not to be dominated by it, which is a good meditation practice. 

I like to walk in a nearby state park early in the morning. If I wait until too late in the morning, I will encounter groups walking together on the trails and talking as if they are in the kitchen rather than in the woods. I pass individuals walking fast with their smart phones in hand and ear buds in their ears. They appear oblivious to the beauty that surrounds them—the colors reflected in the lake, bufflehead ducks diving and resurfacing, and the sound of redwing blackbirds.

Customers at Starbucks are selectively attending to their laptops and mobile devices. I often wonder if they are truly experiencing the taste of their expensive beverages. They seem unaware of one another. They might not notice that their pulses have spiked while drinking their mocha. Their wide angle mode of attention is almost certainly turned off and inaccessible. When I go to Starbucks, I often end up saying to myself, “Where did the time go?” I never say that when walking around the lake.

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