Hyper-focus, multitasking and the wonderland of ADHD

The omnipresent screens, intense psycho didactic evaluations and the unbelievable complexity of modern life make focusing more challenging. It is both a blessing and a challenge. We review various aspects of focusing and ADHD from time to time and not is a good time to return to the same subject from a different perspective. Before writing this article I looked for inspiration here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Focus envy

I have a condition known as overfocus ADHD. This means certain things may draw my focus for long periods of time. My wife Anna is normal, and her focus can switch whenever she wants to. Some of my close friends are hyperactive and their focus jumps between subjects and interests. With time I started to understand that we all envy each other’s focus. This sounds quite strange but it appears nobody is quite happy with his focus anymore. The locus of the focus often determines careers and the life story arc of each and every one of us.

Everywhere

Let us start with hyperactive. They suffer in the confinement of the school classes and poorly adapted traditional institutions, getting grades that are often far below their capabilities. Once the school is over, it is very hard to keep a steady job for someone who is hyperactive. However, as entrepreneurs, hyperactive people have huge advantages: a lot of energy, wide range of interests, hyperfocus on the subject that is of the topmost interest. As the result, disproportionally many of self-made millionaires are hyperactive. And this is something most people will envy.

Over there

The overfocused people hold just the opposite position. Being capable of extreme concentration over certain complex problems, it is easy to excel in school and universities, getting high degrees and publishing academic papers. The adaptation to real life is more challenging. It is one thing to write a paper or a book in the quiet environment of the cabinet, and much harder to face the havoc of certain social encounters, technological revolutions, and economic uncertainty. Being constantly interrupted and drawn away from the subject of interest is almost painful. Yet most people will envy the deep insights and inspired formulations that come from the extreme focus.

Wherever

Being able to live a normal life and switch the focus at will is something very comforting. Normal people do not feel the discomforts of uncontrollable focus swings, yet they also do not get the intensely passionate hyperfocus that comes with ADHD. Being blessed with a comfortable and somewhat boring life is kind of strange. When all the paths are open, it is harder to choose one and stay on it, hence the motivation is often lower than at the extremes. It is very easy to admire exceptional people, but much harder to live with them. For someone normal, having a spouse or a child with ADHD is a huge challenge, and many people give up and try to push Adderall into their loved ones.

Not a disability

Some educators think of ADHD as a disability and get help when handling children with ADHD needs. Many parents want to have their children diagnosed with ADHD so they can get extra time at exams, achieve higher scores and potentially be successful in their career. Either way, ADHD is overdiagnosed, and quite possibly people who report ADHD do not actually have it.

The bliss of flow

While hyperfocus is not always controllable, it is very often enjoyable. Almost everybody can enjoy the state of flow. In the flow state, we face a challenge that makes us use all of our skills to achieve extraordinary results. The flow state is often reported by athletes who need to set up a new personal record, and also by programmers who face a complex technical challenge. One of the interesting features of the flow state is intense interest in the specific task and intense level of energy that allow achieving the goal.

One of the reasons our keytostudy learning methodology is effective: it induces the flow state. As we read and memorize faster, we challenge ourselves to do a hard task. At the same time, we have enough control over the situation to ensure we meet the challenge. The intense level of creativity that often comes from visualization and memorization requirements, is also very characteristic for the flow state. Since the flow state is the most effective state for people with all kinds of focus, the learning capabilities in this state are maximized.

The drain of multitasking

Multitasking is one of the biggest challenges our generation needs to face. Two hundred years ago the vast majority of the people spent the vast majority of their lives watching the hindside of a horse while plowing the land. The lives were hard and boring, yet the challenges were simple and easy to grasp. Today, being educated and living in developed countries, we face the opposite reality. Most of our challenges are very complex and abstract, and we face many different challenges. Answering a phone call while writing a letter that formulates a response to somebody else’s summary of a discussion is a commonplace scenario. The amount of multitasking is phenomenal and not unlike juggling. And this multitasking is not something we evolved to do. While multitasking our IQ drops possibly by 20 points (which is as bad as the alcohol intoxication), we get tired and make mistakes.

The elite multitaskers

Quite possibly, around 2% of the people possess unique adaptations that allow them to multitask effectively. Most of these elite multitaskers are females. If you think that you are one of the elite multitaskers, probably you are wrong. The vast majority of the drivers think that they drive better than average. People tend to claim they possess skills they rarely do.

The extreme multitaskers would probably be very modest, as they undertake the burden of tasks difficult even for them. Moreover, the extreme multitaskers would probably be rated perfectly normal on the ADHD scale, as they need to control their focus almost effortlessly. Their working memory would probably be smaller but significantly faster, and quite possibly they would be good musicians. These assumptions are not scientifically tested. The extreme multitaskers are very hard to find but less hard to train.

It is probably possible to train multitasking, which is somewhat similar to training juggling only using math series and visualization. You can train yourself if you want to. It is probably easier to replace multitasking with sequences of tasks that do not require a context switch. We discuss this subject in various productivity-related materials and courses.

Multitasking training is not necessarily specific

This paper published in the journal Science outlines the specific neurons responsible for multitasking. During this study, the NYU researchers found that specialized nerve cells—called “somatostatin-expressing interneurons” (also known as Sst interneurons)—play a pivotal role in controlling how information flows through somatosensory cortices in the active mouse brain.

Quite possibly, when we train to multitask we train the specific multitasking neurons and we can later transfer the ability from the training to the real-life tasks.

Stress kills multitasking

We often associate multitasking with stress. We often need to multitask because we are handling a stressful situation. The effort of multitasking increases the stress levels. And the stress hormones reduce the ability to multitask because they trigger flight-or-fight response characterized by hyperfocus. There are certain tips that help to ace the multitasking training. First, you can try to simplify the task as much as possible using the simplest visualization, childish colors and reduced creativity. Then, some parts of the tasks need to become automatic to minimize the attention required to handle them. And most importantly, you will need to calm down using some sort of breathing exercise and introducing calming elements into your visualization. Even a short pause before you need to handle the new situation can be helpful, as you can use it to calm yourself down. If you happen to fail, you need to be able to accept failure quickly so you can get back to handling yet more tasks. Thus when we practice multitasking, we also practice resilience.

The wrong overfocus

The overfocus can be even more destructive than multitasking. If we happen to overfocus on the negative aspects of our lives or on a single element such as net worth, we will probably end up deeply unhappy. Many people with ADHD overfocus are resentful and get treated for depression, as it is so easy to focus on the wrong things. Focusing on the right things is hard. There are some specific CBT techniques for positive thinking, like writing a gratitude diary and counting good thoughts vs bad thoughts. We describe these methods in some of our training materials. When we do focus on something, it should better be helpful or entertaining or otherwise positive. For people with top-down focus control, it is easy. When the focus is bottom-up and drawn by specific events, an email or news post about some subject we resent can trigger a depressing event. Do not let these negative impulses rule your life: there are many things you can do to fight them and you should not have any excuse to give up on yourself.

No excuses

The ADHD is overdiagnosed, possibly by 60%. The multitasking or resilience training is not that hard. It is even easier to avoid challenging situations, to begin with. If you happen to fail the effects are not permanent. Getting into the flow state while pursuing an exciting activity is one of the antidotes for the occasional failures. People often look for diagnoses as viable excuses for personal failures and weakness. Usually, I do not accept this positions. There are very few things that cannot be achieved with creativity and determination.

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Notice: Some of the tools I referred to in this document, are free and available through a search on this site, while others may be paid or not yet published. Please contact me info@keytostudy.com if you need a specific tool.

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