Hyperfocus, Flow State and other superpowers

The text came through just as I lifted my head from the schedule I was working on “have you forgotten something?”

Immediately my appointment popped into my head. I checked my watch. Two hours had sped past since I last checked. I was now late. I hastily texted, “on my way!” But she had another client. Damn! How did that happen despite two phone notification reminders which I couldn’t recall hearing remind me?

This sort of thing occurs when I enter a state of hyperfocus. I’m about to enter it now as I write. The difference is this time, I’m aware of how deep my concentration can become, so I have set a few parameters. I have a loud and annoying timer. I have a list beside me of things I must go back to and follow up on in an hour. I am going to try not to get lost in my writing. Easier said than done.

Last year I read Johann Hari’s book “Stolen Focus”. At the time, like many people, I worried I was spending too much time on my phone (so I bought a book and read it on my phone). It was a great book; I resonated with much of what Johann discussed; however, I don’t suffer from a lack of focus when working on something that has me hooked. Writing is an excellent magnet for my attention, as are uncurling certain elements of the business. Doing up spreadsheets and schedules, typing letters, compiling research and documents, and all sorts of problem-solving tasks easily engage my brain.

My problem is that I become so focused on the task at hand that I lose track of time of day (or even what day it is).

There are all sorts of articles and books out there that attribute this trait to ADHD. I wouldn’t know, and I’m not interested in diagnosis at this age. I have plenty of tools for dealing with my quirks. Besides, I think modern life, with its proliferation of devices that capture and hold our attention in creepy ways, multi-tasking, time-poor people and a whole load of chemical-laced nutrition and less health in general, may have led to great swathes of the population that do indeed have some form of ADHD. How can we not have our attention disordered when working and living, and consuming this way?

Other professionals discuss entering an intensely focused mindset rather more gently, calling it a “flow state”.

The benefits of the flow state are apparent—effortless productivity combined with high efficiency. Full attention means that fewer mistakes are made. If I have a clean slate to work with, I can achieve thousands of words, untangle wickedly tricky problems and come up with beautifully creative solutions.

I don’t have a problem with entering into the flow; I have a problem coming out of it in time to keep a date with other appointments. I also don’t particularly enjoy coming out of this calm and peaceful headspace. Refocusing on something else can take a while.

When I’m in the flow, I am achieving milestones. Dopamine is dropping. I am happy. I become resentful if I have to break that easy flow of attention. If you have ever called a child away from a book or a video game, you will have an indication of what sort of reaction is happening inside me, even if I am mature enough not to stamp my foot and be openly hostile – most of the time.

It’s fortunate if I am interrupted sometimes or I would forget to eat. As the cook and caretaker of the household, I would also fail to feed other people and animals. Or I have almost done so in the past. Now I usually have a little more balance.

Balance is key to working with hyperfocus, as is being aware of your possible propensity to unwittingly clock out of life entirely sometimes.

What we are aware of, we can use to our advantage. Being able to quell the world’s noise and accomplish plenty of work is undoubtedly an advantage. However, just as snorkelling a reef is engagingly beautiful, and the deeper we dive, the more fantastic the immersion, we have to be able to return to the surface by a specific time, or else the focus begins to be detrimental to our broader experience, aka life

If any of this post so far has led to an “aha” moment, then perhaps some of what helps me may help you, and please, if you have any tips you have learned, feel free to add them in the comments.

Each morning I write a list of things I must do in an A4 spiral book. The book lives on my desk, and more items are added to it as they occur. Phone numbers, people to follow up, that sort of thing. Sometimes I write something I am doing as I am doing it and then tick it off. Why? Because I like the dopamine kick and won’t waste any achievement, no matter how big or small, that delivers me a little burst of natural chemical happy juice.

The additional benefit of recording everything is that when I look back, I can always see what I have done and what needs to be followed up or addressed later. Nobody seems to do as they are requested the first time around anymore. Follow up follow up follow up. It’s handy to have it written on a list. It is highlighted if I have an appointment, and I have two reminders on my phone for the more important meetings.

There are many apps and timers we can access via our devices. Sometimes those things fail. The old-school spiral-bound book that I can glance at from time to time usually does not.

I try to take a break every hour. Some articles and books debate the optimum attention span or how long humans can concentrate on reading a report before the sudden urge to check their social media, email, or something else interferes. There are dire warnings that our attention spans are shrinking. But let’s face it, there is a lot of boring stuff that I can’t read for very long either, and believe me, if I am reading a good book or a thoroughly exciting article, being forced to set it aside will produce rebellion. My attention span is not shrinking, but my time to indulge it is.

When I take my break, I try and avoid the kitchen. Intermittent fasting has broken my prowling habit of opening the fridge or cupboard to satisfy an emotional hunger pang. I say emotional hunger because that is what I have found it to be. Food is a wonderful filler for time and jean sizes, so I avoid the temptation.

I get outside or move through a few simple tasks that will move me in the direction of perhaps accomplishing something else that needs to be done.

When I do this, I can gently disengage my focus from the previous task and let the rest of my brain catch up with returning to the real world. I am not exaggerating when I say I sometimes have to think hard about what day it is, at least for a moment.

I also like to take a minute to look back at my list and ensure there isn’t anything I am supposed to be backtracking that I have missed.

After a break, I can re-engage happily, knowing that I’ve covered all my bases and ensured that I hadn’t missed anything. This periscope up, periscope down approach has helped me stay mostly on target and successfully negotiate a hectic year.

Breaks are crucial to balance. I never used to take breaks. I felt they broke my focus and made returning to whatever I was working on difficult. Unfortunately, I would end up burnt out. The brain needs regular breaks. Our bodies need to move. We are not designed for staring at screens whilst sitting on chairs all day in artificial lighting.

I don’t think flow state or hyperfocus is only available to people with some form of ADHD. I believe there are plenty of people who become immersed in their work and enjoy the sensation of resulting efficiency and productivity. However, I think we can all dive a little deep and need those gentle tugs back up to the surface sometimes.

Have a great day. Don’t forget to check your air levels before the dive – I’m headed back up to the sunlight again X

14 thoughts on “Hyperfocus, Flow State and other superpowers

  1. So easy to hyper focus, I kinda have that but where I build up worry simultaneously and end up totally exhausted … funny giving up your phone to read on your phone 🙂

  2. Every word is true! I used to block off several days to write, hardly getting out of the chair. But I’m older and have to get up now. I agree that breaks are important to stay fresh. I’d still like to be able to stay there though!

    • Oh, me too. Particularly with writing, it’s like being plugged into energy, and when it is going well, it’s so satisfying. I think I have learned too much of a good thing could be a bad thing though, hence the breaks. I think, as writers, we fear the magic connection will be broken if we walk away for awhile, but mostly I’ve found that zooming out allows me to see something I perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise.

  3. Great post and so relatable:
    “It’s fortunate if I am interrupted sometimes or I would forget to eat. As the cook and caretaker of the household, I would also fail to feed other people and animals.”


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