Hyperfocus / Perseveration


#1

A common (maybe the most well-known) symptom of ADHD is being easily distracted and unable to maintain focus on a single thing for very long. However, many people may not realize that the opposite is also a symptom – the tendency to hyperfocus on a single task for hours on end to the exclusion of others. In a psychiatric sense, this is called perseveration, and it relates to difficulty in task switching. It is important to realize that attention deficit does not mean the lack of attention, rather it is the inability to properly modulate attention. In this case you find it difficult to actually stop focusing on something.

Hyperfocus is seen often in the developer community under the guise of “being in the zone.” It is even self-selecting for software engineering, as it is a behavior that greatly lends itself to the demands of development. Those exhibiting actual signs of perseveration may not realize it as such, as getting good code momentum going is quite common, yet they can take it to extremes.

Have you started working on a programming task only to look up and realize it’s twelve hours later, you’ve barely taken a break, and now you aren’t going to get any sleep? Have you wondered what that odd pain in your stomach was while contemplating an annoying bug only to realize you’ve forgotten to eat? Have you felt unreasonably angry for being interrupted while in the midst of an intense coding session? Have you tried to get started on a new task only to find you are inexplicably drawn to attend to some external stimulus no matter how hard you try to block it out?

These have all happened to me. While the first two and similar cases can be great for churning out code, especially at crunch times, the downsides can be quite aggravating. For instance, it is incredibly difficult for me to get any work done if there is a TV on that I can see or hear. It doesn’t matter what is on, I will frequently lock onto it, thus preventing any consistent focus on work I may be trying to do. I’ve even trailed off in the middle of sentences because something on a TV arrested my attention. I’m amazed people can get programming work down while listening to podcasts, audiobooks, or TV shows, as my productivity plummets whenever I attempt it.


#2

I pretty much have these issues as well. I do, however, think I function a little better with music playing. The funny thing is that I largely tune it out, but I need it. As a matter of fact, I just noticed before typing this that the same song had been on repeat for quite a while, but I had not noticed.

It can be very hard to express how much frustration I feel when I am interrupted to those that don’t have the same challenge. Its really hard to get in the zone and then be brought out for no good reason. A lot of the time I can’t get back in when I’ve been brought out like that.

I try to get those I work with to give me a few uninterrupted hours each day, but there is one in particular who does not have this issue at all, and can’t conceive of how it might affect me. Can’t seem to get it to sink to him that a 1 minute IM interruption by him can turn into a 45 minute side trip by me.

Another related issue to this that is challenging for me is when people come to me with questions about code they are working on. If I can’t solve the problem right away for them, I often cannot get back to what I was doing before until I spend the time to figure it out. I wish I could just forget it and re-engage in what I was doing before, but it gets the better of me quite often.


#3

I function better with instrumental music, especially music that I’ve listened to over and over again (Explosions in the Sky for me) so that my brain isn’t trying to latch onto anything new.

I wish our office had a more standard interruption policy. When is it okay to interrupt someone? What’s the preferred way to do it?


#4

I tend to listen to instrumental music (video game soundtracks mostly) or music of an artist I’m very familiar with. I also listen to full albums with the tracks in order, never on shuffle. This ensures that no unexpected song pops up which helps greatly in letting it fade into the background.

Regarding interruption policies, one way to try to approach this is with the idea of an “in-office vacation.” In other words, you are in the office working, but you select a day or block of time where you make it clear where, other than lunch and scheduled meetings and team events, people should act is if you aren’t in the office and not likely to respond to email. This would require some discipline to pull off, but maybe switching to an empty office and closing the door or designating a certain portion of the workspace as the “vacation” area (maybe with some silly name like “The Island”). This would signal to others that these workers should not be disturbed or dragged into impromptu meetings unless it is critically urgent.


#5

I have a regular problem with hyperfocus and can find myself working on something most of a day and it won’t be until much later that I finally realize it. The unfortunate part is when this happens and the item of my focus is inconsequential to the project or tasks at hand. It also tends to interfere with my eating, sleeping and socializing.

I am currently trying an app on my computer that alerts me at intervals, stealing my attention for a moment to ensure I’m truly focusing my energy on something worthwhile. The idea seems like a good one and forcing myself to “check-in” regularly has seemed to be helping a minor amount. I really wish that it was more bossy than a growl-like notification.

Has anyone found an app or routine that has worked for them when it comes to hyperfocussing? While I admit its great when needed it gets quite exhausting to maintain and frustrating when efforts are for naught.


#6

I’m new to the group so hello for the first time and I really appreciate that people are sharing their stories. This thread really hit a nerve for me. I also use hyper-focus as a means to cope with ADHD. I learned how to do this very early on, in elementary school. I wasn’t diagnosed with disorder until I was in my mid thirties.

The focus has been both a blessing and a curse over the years. It’s great when you can really dig in an get something done or optimize your attention to block stress in a good and constructive way. It’s really negative when you hyper-escape from stress that is critical to deal with. I have also experienced growing feelings of emotional isolation even as I had great success on work related tasks. This isolation can build up to a dangerous level.

I literally prefer noisy and busy environments because I find that small distractions have a calming effect that tends to even out my more major disruptions. Some of you might find that even with your hyper focus you work better and feel more emotional well being in a busy coffee shop. When I started in my current office I had to listen to podcasts and music because the culture here values quiet.

JH


#7

Hi, my first post.

It depends on my mood. Sometimes music helps. Sometimes instrumental helps. When I’m in a good mood, I find that music I like helps. So I can listen to Depeche Mode or Slayer or any artist I like and I get in a groove. Sometimes listening to podcasts(or just ppl talking). Other days I prefer absolute silence.

I work from home, so I can control the environment. The dark days are difficult. I’m able to recognise those days now, so I try to go out or do something instead of just lying in bed. I didn’t think of myself as being depressed until recently. Knowing that has helped me because now I can identify the difficult days.


#8

Reading the description of hyperfocus, and looking back, I believe that the drug Vyvanse seemed to cause hyperfocus in me.

I remember there were a few weeks at work where I was insanely productive on the particular project that I really wanted to work on, to such an extent that I would go home from work and immediately continue to work on it just because. Another week (or more, I don’t remember) I was focused in a similar fashion, however, I would come in to the office and spend the day researching topics related to my car. I was skipping lunch. And dinner. At one point I recall I had gone a straight 48 hours without eating anything substantial. I also had various responsibilities that needed tending to, e.g. paying bills, that I just completely ignored because they weren’t what I wanted to be bothered with at the time. People attempting to engage in conversation with me while I was working would annoy me or get coldly ignored. A coworker even remarked that he was used to me having interesting things to say, and that I rarely spoke at all anymore.

I’m not sure why I’m posting this anecdote. I guess I wanted to cite a paradoxical effect that a particular stimulant had on me. In hindsight, it would seem that Vyvanse just shifted the symptoms of ADHD I was experiencing from non-focus to hyper-focus. I wasn’t really able to modulate my attention any better than I ever could; but I thought the drug was working because I was no longer so scatter-brained. I almost felt like I had lost control of myself in some ways; I was then a slave to whatever my mind found interesting.

Rarely do I hyperfocus otherwise. Or, if I do, it’s never for the same thing for days at a time.

I’m no longer taking Vyvanse and taking amphetamine salts instead, which tends to make me less of a robot than Vyvanse, but certainly has its own pitfalls.


#9

My hyperfocus seems to come on most heavily when I’m doing research. I’m not sure if I’m just trapped down a new rabbit or eternally looking for that ‘golden nugget’/silver bullet answer that will solve the problems in one clean sweep (like such a thing could even exist).

Unfortunately, the subject of my quest is just as likely to be the colour and composition of my next pair of socks as it is to be crucial to the current project.

Conversely, I can be so into something for months only to find that my interest in the matter has run dry, like a power cell running out of juice. No warning, just suddenly no desire to continue along that track, and forcing myself leads to the typical cycle of self-loathing (why am I so lazy, don’t I have any drive/ambition, etc…).

What techniques have you guys come up with to help keep your deep dives on a worthwhile target, while also not letting your ‘interest battery’ run out?

Okay, I’m done… :slight_smile:


#10

Yep. Understand this completely. I made an 8tracks playlist a few years ago that has helped when I need to block out the chaos.


#11

I’ve started making use of the pomodoro technique. there are simple little apps that can help you with task delivery. You set work session periods like 20-25 or 30 or even 45 minutes, depends on your work style. That time frame is called a pomodori. Every pomodori you complete you get a short break. I do 35 minutes with 7 minute breaks. Enough time to make a cup of coffee if the pots ready, use the restroom etc… Every 4 pomodori’s you complete you get a long break i use 45 minutes now. so a normal sequence would be 35 min work • 7 min break • 35 min work • 7 min break • 35 min work • 7 min break • 35 min work • 45 minute break repeat. Its been incredibly helpful. The trick is to make sure you’re setting the task for each work session directly. Look at a task, estimate how many pomodori’s it will take to get done. Once you begin working do not stop for anything. If a distraction arises while you are working, stop take a breath and make note of the distraction you can come back and evaluate if its worth your time. Make note of it even if it “google cats”, the note will still help. I keep a journal by my side specifically for this now. Its becoming a silly list of things I let myself get distracted by so I can be mindful of it in the future.


#12

I can totally relate, although I seem to be able to turn it off and on most of the time. Sometimes I feel compelled to write code, and other times can’t face reading or writing a single line. Perhaps that’s just habit/self-discipline?

Does anyone else come out of ‘the zone’ feeling dazed and unable to form coherent words? Perhaps that’s just normal mental fatigue…or maybe it’s just me!