I once spent a week organizing seed beads by color. My box had been tipped over during a move, and everything had gotten mixed up, so I sat down with a pair of tweezers and sorted them out one by one until I’d organized all the beads by ROYGBIV. I don’t remember finding it tedious. It was something that needed doing, and I sat down and did it until I’d finished.

This ability to focus has, for the most part, served me well. It meant I did well at school because I’d sit down and get through all my homework without getting distracted. It means that I get through books in a shorter amount of time (measured in days) than the average person because I can read for hours without noticing the time pass. It means that when I’m in the writing zone, I am seriously in the writing zone.

But there’s a downside to hyper focus. I call it the binge cycle. Every few months, for a few days I’ll get completely engrossed in a single TV show or comic book series. I have (really, guys, this is something I need to do) to get through the entire thing. I forget to eat at regular times. My sleep cycle goes out the window because midnight isn’t that late (says the girl who goes to bed at 9 pm most nights) and there are only 20 minutes left in the episode or 10 pages in the chapter. And do I need to shower on the weekends, or get dressed or go grocery shopping? I’m sure you get the picture.

This weekend, I was going to harness my hyper focus into knocking a big chunk out of my revisions. Sadly, it was not to be. Instead, I spent three days watching series 7 of X Factor UK (Yes, that’s the year One Direction placed third). I did manage to get some good revisions in, but that was after I watched the entire series and then scrawled through Youtube for One Direction interviews and clips and scoured Wikipedia for information of the member’s current solo projects, etc..

I’m going to pause here and say, despite what I wrote in the previous paragraph, I’m not an obsessive One Direction fan. I like their music, but it’s not my favorite. I think it’s fun and their story makes me smile. And that’s the root of it: I get pulled in by a good narrative, and I’m lost.

I was planning to revise and write a blog on a different topic, and I was going to finish reading Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levine (great series, highly recommended).  Instead, I watched YouTube videos of a boy band I don’t even care about much. So I guess, what I’m looking for is other people’s experiences with hyperfocus. What embarrassing things have snared your attention? How do you pull yourself out to refocus on something productive?

Thank you for reading and please help me!

9 thoughts on “Focus

  1. My Dearest Emily,

    Your post is hitting me like the molding of a narrow door on a funnybone. It hurts so much, feels so familiar, and I know it is going to be fine in just a few seconds (after I rub it a little and stop responding to your post).

    Focus is what I’m sure allows you to be who I admire: a musician, a writer, and a person with a finely honed sense of personal style. It is a distinct superpower to be able to tune your personal energy like an instrument string, until it perfectly takes in (or put out) that one, single stream of data. Do not lose this capacity. It is amazing.

    So the underlying question I believe you’re asking isn’t actually about a problem with your focus – your focus muscle is exceptionally strong and well-calibrated – it is your calibration tool. How are you going about tuning your whole fabulous self to make the note that is most important RIGHT NOW.

    Are you making lists? Setting goals? Pomodoro timer-ing? Do you have an accountabilibuddy to check in with? What’s your reward system?

    I think you may find that when you feel you are ‘focusing on the wrong things’ either a) you’re afraid of the right ones (a la Emma Newman!) or b) you are rewarded in some way for the wrong ones.

    How can you pull yourself out?

    Step 1 – notice what your hyper-focus is. Take deep breaths. Name it. “I’ve spent 8 hours binge watching X. Is that OK with me?”

    Step 2 – whatever the answer is, give yourself permission to be honest.

    YES! I needed a break so I can stop should-ing on myself. Self-flagellation isn’t the best choice and it is singularly unattractive. It ages you. Gives you wrinkles. And not the laugh-line kind.

    Step 3 – if the answer is NO, it isn’t OK for me to be focused on thing X, SEE: Notes by Emily Randolph-Epstein on negotiating with your personal monsters lecture by Emma Newman.

    Breathe deeply. Find out what you want or need. Have tea. Identify your fear. Pet the monster. Tell it thank you for visiting. Let it know when it can come back and finish watching the show. Promise it some cake later, if you can shift your focus now, for a few hours.

    Once you do shift the focus to something that has a bigger and better reward, the monster will probably get bored and wander off…which is okay, because his big brother will likely come along and take his place.

    Enlist those you love and trust to help you identify the monsters. And keep being honest and open and funny and hyper-focused. These are attractive qualities that make everyone (like me) want to help and support you.

    Big hugs,

  2. I resemble this. Even down to the bead sorting. (For me, it was my son’s perler beads. I only meant to sort a few for him, but it I did it for days. It wasn’t “fun” exactly, but it felt good.)

    My husband, describing my shifting (but intense) focus once described me in a way that totally rearranged how I thought of myself. He said “When you’re stuck on your book, it’s all that matters, and everything else is a bummer. When you’re stuck on derby, it’s all that matters, and everything else is a bummer. Etc.” Now I see that very clearly myself. I love it when I’m “stuck on” my writing, because it’s wonderful and it’s all I care about, and that aligns with how I WANT to feel. But other things slide into that focus that don’t make sense. I once (with no desire to diet) went on a Biggest Loser watch spree. There were SO many seasons, and so much to watch, and this was while I was ON A WRITING RETREAT. It made very little sense. I hate reality TV. Really. No sense at all.

    When I recognize it happening, I like to walk away and make a list of things I need to do (usually a ton of work deadlines) and things I want to do…and things I WANT to want to do. I try to evaluate the “want” list against the “want to want” list honestly. “Is it normal that I want to spend the next two days creating the perfect spreadsheet for this club that is doing just fine with their half-assed spreadsheet? Is that something that will ultimately make me happy, or just scratch an itch?”

    Sometimes, stepping back and looking the intrusive “want” in the face is enough to beat it back. I’ve walked away from show binges and never finished the show or thought about it again. Sometimes, especially if work is too stressful, I give up, give in, and let it play out. It’s not a perfect science.

    1. Thanks so much for these strategies. I really like the idea of the “want to do” list vs. the “Want to want to do” list. I’ll make to do lists, but I’ve never made either of the others.

  3. This kind of hyper-focus happens to me pretty rarely, but I do fairly frequently suffer from the related problem of doing *nothing* for a long period of time. It’s a common symptom of depression, and one of my big coping strategies is the “do one thing” technique.

    I make a to-do list with only one thing on it. Some small task, which is eminently do-able, even though it might seem ridiculously hard when I’m in that mood. And I do it – I take out the trash, or I put away my iPad, or I pick up my dirty laundry. It’s a way to remind my brain that It can be in a different state than the current one.

    1. That’s pretty helpful. When I’m depressed it’s defintely worse, but it’s an everyday struggle for me even when I’m not in a low period as a result of ADD.

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