Hyperfocusing vs. multitasking

I have read that some people with ADHD/ADD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) have a tendency to hyperfocus on one task, subject, or topic, while others have difficulty focusing on any one thing at all. I don’t have ADHD or ADD, but people close to me have drawn attention to my trait of hyperfocusing since I was a little child. I could daydream about the same thing for hours on end. During work, I would focus solely on one project the whole day, by choice. Though I would do other work, I’d squeeze it in as quickly as possible during the last hour or so. I sort of do the same thing at home, and cut corners. At both places there are also tasks that sit on the back burner long-term, or forever.

When one interviews for a job, saying that you are a good “multitasker” is considered a strength. I can see this, especially if you are able to complete multiple tasks in a timely fashion, and do so well. I admire such people, but believe most do perhaps a “good” job at most, but maybe not an exemplary job at any given one. I suppose it depends on one’s boss’ preferences which scenario is preferred, and yours. Certainly some hyperfocused employees are pigeonholed at times. I know I was. That can work out well, or hold you back.

Sometimes I can grow almost obsessive about completing a project, even to a point of sickness. Sometimes at work, I would forget to eat lunch. At home, all I’d think or talk about would be my projects. It annoyed my husband, and he realized it was bad for me. It added a great deal of stress. Not that multitasking is a walk in the park.

I have bipolar disorder, but am not so sure that the type of obsessive focus or thinking is commonplace in my illness. Actually, when people are manic, they often have difficulty focusing long on any particular thing, while thoughts race rapidly. I guess looking back, I did have difficulties at those times, but at the same time, some level of obsession remained. Imagine being manic and have this run through your mind at 100 mph: “Sum formula in A8. Don’t forget to upload brochure. Write the ad for the magazine. Discount for three month programs. Get going! Get going! Now! I want spaghetti for dinner. Row row row the boat. Why is she such a hassle? Concentrate, Updownflight. Get going! Division formula in D8. Is hubby coming home tonight for dinner?”

Many people in history with the hyperfocusing trait have achieved great things. Composers, like Mozart, have written symphonies in record time. Writers have cranked out books one after another. Even seemingly more normal people have achieved huge goals in weeks that others may have required years to complete. However, something usually gives. Think of Einstein. His life revolved around his science, but things like self-care and other responsibilities suffered. This trait definitely has its negative aspects.

I admire the “super moms” and “super dads” out there that have great careers, exercise most days, cook great meals, clean their own houses, have hobbies, shop regularly, take kids to karate, etc., etc. OMG! That’s stressing me out just writing about it! Perhaps this category of achiever doesn’t always skyrocket to the top in any given way, but I think many do find a success in life that can be equally admirable to a hyperfocusing achiever.

I’m never going to be a Mozart, Hemmingway, Einstein, or the like. I’m also never going to be a “super mom”. My illness exacerbates my efforts. Of course, I think very few people (even without an illness) fit these categories. But how do they manage to find success without the stress?

Being able to just “let go” or “trim down” certain tasks is a skill that many people need to learn. I wrote about this a bit in my post It’s OK to minimize your work or other responsibility load. It includes an exercise on prioritizing, scheduling, and eliminating tasks.

What about curbing hyperfocusing? Well, that can be tough for me. My therapist again recommends scheduling time(s) to step away from certain work. Set alarms to do tasks on a list, or even to walk. If intrusive thoughts creep in, practice mindfulness and meditation. Play music for distraction. Set up rewards for doing other things.

I know it’s not easy to find the right balance in work and thought focus. It takes planning and practice. I’m also not saying you can’t or shouldn’t strive to be “super woman” or “super man”, but only as long as it doesn’t hurt you in any way in the end.

Do you tend to be a hyperfocuser, a multitasker, or neither? If you’ve found some other ways to get things done without much stress, please share how you do it.

16 thoughts on “Hyperfocusing vs. multitasking

  1. Vandana September 26, 2017 / 4:11 pm

    Cindy, i definitely resonate with a thought you have mentioned here, the over-hyped term, ‘Super’. If anyone is good at what they do, in whichever way they do( focused or multi-tasked), achieve a productive plus self-satisfied end-result, isn’t it enough to be superior in an individual way!
    I guess it’s the stressful social race to compete with time and growing grass greener than one’s peers that falters simple visions to give in your best to succeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight September 26, 2017 / 4:27 pm

      I’ve learned to be happy with what I can do without hurting myself, but it wasn’t always like that. I see so many blogs here that always emphasize being the best and “succeeding, succeeding, succeeding” as if only the pinnacle of success is good enough. I’ve had to stop reading such posts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vandana September 26, 2017 / 4:46 pm

        I never read self help write-ups!
        Success is not bad until we start to measure, compare and compete for it! I feel such success is just a borrowed satisfaction. In today’s scenarios, guess something like getting a good nights sleep is as much as a great success one can imagine!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC September 27, 2017 / 9:02 am

        Good for you! There is a lot of help and brain-based info on my neurodiversity-targeted blog covering different ways to manage (all free/no ads, no catch) — redefining “success” as happiness and functioning, setting up your life in ways that work for YOU. (You will find links to posts about my coaching services at the end of the posts themselves – NO pressure to sign up for *anything*)

        I VERY rarely leave a comment suggesting that people pop over, but your post above asked for help getting things done without increasing stress levels, and I think much of what I’ve written might speak to you. I cross link to related posts, if you’re in the mood to hyperfocus – otherwise, links are easy to ignore.

        I’d suggest using the upper right search box search box for [The Virtues of Lowering your Standards] — it will return 2 older articles at the top of a blogroll of linked posts (one is a rare “repeat/reblog” of the original) . Remember that this is an OLDER article, so the box at the end about the upcoming class no longer applies.

        The follow-on post is [Getting to “Good ENOUGH”], which includes some coaching exercises – same caveat about the class. Obviously, don’t include the square brackets when you search.

        My older posts tend to be lengthier than the ones I post most recently – but I have done my best to format for folks who need to read “rock to rock” to stay tracked. I believe you’ll find them worth your time and quite encouraging.

        xx,
        mgh
        (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
        ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
        “It takes a village to educate a world!”

        Liked by 1 person

      • updownflight September 27, 2017 / 12:44 pm

        mgh, thanks for your comment and the referral to your blog. I will check out the articles you mentioned.

        It’s nice to see someone else writing about success in a way that most people can attain, and hopefully be happy about. It took a major illness for me to look at success and life satisfaction in a new way. I certainly hope it doesn’t take so much for others.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC September 27, 2017 / 7:28 pm

        I’m so sorry that you HAD to have a major reframe – and have to deal with fluctuations that others can’t understand. But I’m glad that you know more about what YOU need to do, and ease up on yourself about the things you find difficult (or sometimes impossible).

        The reason so many so-called “success” gurus set the bar so impossibly high is because it is motivating and inspiring for what I call “vanilla” brain-styles (few mix-ins). It encourages them to “try harder” to accomplish still more.

        For those of us with brains that have the “mix-ins” (like with ice cream), those rah-rah opinions and suggestions usually shut us down. It’s hard for those of us struggling with BASIC items and behaviors due to challenges with attention, short-term memory, mood regulation, etc. – for a brain-based reason! – to feel anything but frustration and make-wrong.

        Stress (shaming and should-ing) shuts down (deactivates) the pre-frontal cortex – the area of the brain we all need on board and fully functional to be ABLE to do what others seem to do more easily. Paradoxically, ramping things down often changes everything for us.

        It’s only ONE strategy – and that are many others. We’re all different – with strengths and challenges both in-common and NOT with “vanillas” as well as with folks diagnosed with the same thing. Mental challenges are NOT the same as most physical ones, so “one size” advice rarely works well. Once we understand what’s going on, the more we can accept how we are and set things up OUR way, the better we do.
        xx,
        mgh

        Liked by 1 person

  2. updownflight September 27, 2017 / 7:42 pm

    mgh, I read the two articles you suggested and appreciated them very much!

    It’s true that ramping things down made a difference in my life in terms of mood stabilization. I will admit that I feel a bit below my potential. Certainly the success gurus are not speaking to me in their posts, but I need to continue a conversation with myself about what success really is and will be for me, in the future.

    I certainly understand that mental challenges are different animals in some ways than physical ones. Time and exposure to other people with mental health challenges has also confirmed what you wrote, that even we are not the same in all ways. I wrote as much in a post of mine about people with bipolar 1 to others with bipolar 1, not to mention people with bipolar type 1 and type 2.

    Like

  3. celtics345 September 27, 2017 / 11:59 pm

    When I was manic/hypomanic I cranked out books like crazy God in 2016 I can only guess how many books I wrote maybe 20 or more. I get hyperfocused when manic. I also get hyperfocused when I am depressed pressuring myself to work faster more on a writing project that I can complete in a timely manner for my enjoyment. Also I get hyperfocused on my Diabetes. I work so hard on it I really worry about it on my mind a lot when its simple when I struggle I can get an increase in insulin or new meds. For my writing I just set a schedule routine of only 2 chapters per day and I just tell myself not to worry about my Diabetes I keep the best diet and exercise routine I can. I still try to keep a schedule of things to do each day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight September 28, 2017 / 1:59 am

      I think our focus is important. It seems to help keep us moving forward, doesn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • celtics345 September 28, 2017 / 2:02 am

        Yea it does it helps us keep engaged, escape and be distracted from triggers or stressors.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Kate Dawson October 1, 2017 / 2:25 pm

    I also have Bipolar disorder, and I find that I obsess over certain things in rotation. One week, it’s my blog, another, it’s music, another, crosstitch. I’ve also had times where multitasking is natural, but I haven’t figured out what part of that is my illness and which is not. I spend most of my time in obsessive mode.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight October 1, 2017 / 3:27 pm

      I guess obsessing of any type can be problematic. When do you find you are able to multitask vs. the rotational obsessing?

      Like

      • Kate Dawson October 1, 2017 / 5:19 pm

        Well I tend to multitask when I’m slightly manic. Sometimes I’m good at it and sometimes I think I’m being good at it but I’m just unfocused. I’m not sure what I am when I’m obsessing. Maybe it’s just my personality. I tend to throw myself into one thing pretty hardcore, but when I’m really manic those thoughts start racing and repeating over and over and it becomes unhealthy.

        Liked by 1 person

      • updownflight October 1, 2017 / 8:44 pm

        Thanks for sharing, Kate. I, too, sometimes feel like mulitasking is easier when mildly hypomanic, but for me it is more often hyperfocusing. Yeh, when my mind really starts racing fast I do all kinds of things, but the success and accuracy is questionable or clearly lacking.

        When I’m depressed, I just can’t focus on anything.

        Liked by 1 person

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