Hyperfocus and fixation were two of the first words I heard associated with ADHD when I started learning about it. I’ve seen them used both distinctly and interchangeably. It seems everywhere I look there’s a different take on what they mean and how they’re related. So this week I dove in once again to really try to get a handle on these two terms so that I could write somewhat intelligently about them. Here are the working definitions I’ve come up with. Don’t worry, they’ve been vetted by Twitter – haha!
Hyperfocus: the ability or act of intensely focusing on an activity or task to the exclusion of awareness of time and surroundings.
Fixation: a topic, person, object, or activity that becomes the primary focus of an individual for days, weeks, or more.
I don’t claim to be in charge of these terms, but while I use them in this post I want you to understand how I’m using them so that I can speak clearly about them.
What hyperfocus looks like for me
So, why the confusion about the words? I believe it’s because they often show up together. While I can hyperfocus on just about anything if my interest level is high enough in the moment, I’m most likely to be found hyperfocusing on my current fixation. And while I may have a fixation that occupies much of my time and thought during a day, I may not actually be engaging in hyperfocus.
When I hyperfocus, I’m usually sitting. You will notice an intense level of focus and stillness. I won’t even be fidgeting. Frequently there is a screen involved, whether it’s a computer, television, e-reader, or smartphone. This was actually one of my “ah-ha” moments in analyzing my ADHD. When asked if I could sit still for prolonged periods, my automatic answer was, yes! But as I considered it, I had to add…if there’s a screen. Without a screen I can’t stop fidgeting to save my life.
One of the reasons that screens are so common to my hyperfocus ability is that whether a work project or entertainment at home, I’m most likely using a screen of some kind. So while a screen doesn’t have to be present for me to hyperfocus, it’s very common that there is one.
While I’m in hyperfocus I will completely lose track of time. I may play a video game for 6-8 hours straight, not eating or taking care of any other needs. When the hyperfocus is broken, typically by my partner returning home, I will often find myself very hungry and needing to use “the facilities.” As a kid I played The Legend of Zelda on NES all day long. When I was called to dinner I found that my thumb hurt. I’d developed a blister from playing on those unforgiving boxy controllers all day, but hadn’t realized the pain until I was called away.
Hyperfocus is double edged for me. If it’s a work project I’m excited about, I can research and plan and create for hours. But if it’s recreational, well, you’ve seen I can easily waste a day or more. I can’t necessarily control when hyperfocus will engage, but I can try to make it happen it by setting up a scenario where I have a chunk of time set aside for a project I’m excited about.
What Fixations Look Like For Me
When I have a fixation, you’ll know it. It’s pretty much on my mind all the time and all I want to talk about. Look at my internet history, my social media, ask me what’s new…you’ll hear about it. I don’t always have a current fixation. I have had many of them. Sometimes they will last weeks, months, and even years. When I do have a fixation, I can tell it’s more than “just another interest” by looking at the time, money and attention I give it.
Time: My fixation will be the first thing I attend to when I wake up and the last thing I look at/think of before I go to sleep. It will also occupy a lot of time throughout the day, typically 4-5 hours, but stretching to 10 or more on the most intense days. The fixation often takes precedence over family, work, church, values, and goals. It will encroach into work and family time.
Money: These high-interest fixations, combined with low impulse control, lead to me buying many things to “set up” or continue a new fixation. Anything related to furthering the fixation is considered a necessary purchase regardless of how much money is in my bank account. I have great collections of items stored in my house related to many past fixations.
Attention: Usually the fixation will be on my mind all day whether I’m actively participating or not. I like to make spreadsheets to track and plan. I’ll make notes in my phone app. I will learn all I can about the subject through research and study. I’ll engage in frequent periods of hyperfocus around the fixation. Despite typically having a terrible short term memory, when it comes to fixations, I can remember a high degree of detail, short or long term.
My Current and Past Fixations
- Video Games
- Galaxy of Heroes mobile game
- Modern Warfare 2
- Final Fantasy 3/6, 7, 8
- Legend of Zelda
- Other Xbox games
- Cell phone games like Candy Crush
- Toys and Games
- Chess, both playing and coaching
- Magic the Gathering
- Disc Golf
- Baseball, playing the game and collecting cards
- Elementary school
- Standardized Tests
- Academic acceleration
- Computers and programming
- Writing (NaNoWriMo)
- My partner
- Letter writing
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- Music – listening
- Star Wars
- Eating in general
- Hardee’s Monster Burger
- Working on cars
- Boy Scouts
- Barbershop singing
- Family History
Each of these fixations lasted a minimum of several weeks. I am happy to talk about any of them at any time, because I’ve still got a good deal of knowledge about each one. If it’s a past fixation rather than the current one, it may cycle to the top or have a weekend or summer resurgence. Most of the time though they just kind of stay in the back of my mind and I think as fondly of them as I do my long-lost elementary school pals.
What has your experience with hyperfocus and fixation been like? Do these descriptions resonate with you? Does anything on that list sound familiar? Feel free to hit me up for a conversation about any of them. Happy to share.
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