Finding the Flow; Why Hyperfocus is not the “superpower” of ADHD and Flow is something we should all aim for.

Sonia Rentsch

I started editing video’s when I was about 12 years old. First I would “direct” and act in my own short stories. Later, I would sit for hours, researching a subject, searching for footage, cutting the pieces together and, to me, most importantly; finding and aligning the perfect soundtrack for the emotion I wanted to deliver. I would do this at the house of a family friend. He had the equipment, an extensive footage library and a wall filled with music. It was heaven. On weekends I would rush to my playground and get lost. Uninterested in external rewards, forgetting the self, the ego, losing time, forgetting to eat, hand tightly holding the mouse, eyes firmly fixed on the screen. Athletes would say I was in ‘the zone’. Csikszentmihaly would call this state; ‘Flow’.

Hyperfocus vs Flow

As a young girl, diagnosed with ADHD, this state could have been labeled as Hyperfocus. Hyperfocus is defined as extreme focus on a particular task, in which time falls away, and the task at hand becomes the only point of attention. Hyperfocus is typically experienced by people with ADHD, predominantly due to a deficit in regulating focus and the depth of attention. But I have always wondered if ADHD really is an “attention disorder”. I never felt I had a problem with attention, but rather felt I had a problem with control. My focus solely depended on my interest in the subject or on the way it was being delivered. I never felt I lacked the ability to focus as my attention would become deeply fixed on the things I loved, or as Shannon L. Adler puts it; “consumes our thoughts”.

“Not enough people realize that ADHD is not a disorder about loss of focus. It is a disorder of loss of emotional control, which is triggered by outside influences, self-esteem and our interpretation of events. Whether this is positive or negative it triggers us to hyper focus on what consumes our thoughts.”
― Shannon L. Alder

When I heard about Hyperfocus, it was dubbed “the super power of ADHD” I had read about the benefits, but its inconsistency confused me. As a kid, my Hyperfocus would switch on without me having anything to say about it. When I found a subject I was interested in, I would research for hours. Great! When I was looking for something in a box for an important school project I had to finish that day, my mind would suddenly decide that the whole box needed to be re-organized and everything had to be labeled. Not so great. In the worst cases I would just lock onto something without any clear reason. Which one time resulted in me cutting “pretty shapes” into all my mothers curtains. I remember knowing it was wrong — but I had to finish it.

“Children (who hyperfocus) aren’t being disobedient. 
 Their brains just aren’t registering what you’re saying.
 It’s almost like pulling someone out of a dream.”
- Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D.

Hyperfocus to me seems more like mindless behavior. Often without any real goal or useful result. It is rewarding because it feels like flow, yet the sensation seems more obsessive-compulsive. The purpose, the experience and the outcome, are different.

Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (Me-hi Cheek-sent-me-hi) introduced the concept of; ‘Flow’. In his TED talk he shares a quote from his interview with an American composer, which in my view, perfectly describe the feeling that I had while editing my video’s as a kid.

“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you
 feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced 
 this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, 
 and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just 
 sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. 
 And [the music] just flows out of itself.”
- A composer interviewed by Csikszentmihaly

To me, this does not sound like Hyperfocus. And contrary to Hyperfocus, the best thing is, everyone can experience the feeling of flow. But how do we get there? With the instant gratification monkey always lurking on my shoulders; medium, podcasts, audible and you-tube exploding with knowledge. The global news out of control, my phone beeping, my inbox overflowing and my ADHD cap firmly stuck onto my head. I ask myself; how do I tap into that state of mind I so often visited as a kid. How do I find; the ‘flow’?

How to find the Flow

In the early 16th Century, Michalangelo was commissioned by the pope to paint the Sistine Chapel. He spent 5 years laying on his back; the uncomfortable position on the scaffolding putting him in daily agony. Going without food, drink and sleep. Some days he would actually lose consciousness. But, once he awoke, he immediately would return to his work. Csikszentmihaly wanted to understand what happens to artists when they behave this way, and in 1960 he coined this state; flow’.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.

Csikszentmihaly tells us you must meet three pre-conditions to achieve a true state of ‘flow’.

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. Adding direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the 
    person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

Point three, being the most important, and for which he designed an easy-to-remember model. Placing ‘skill’ on the horizontal line and ‘challenge’ on the vertical. Csikszentmihaly explains that flow begins when you are doing what you really like to do while accessing and challenging your highest levels of skill.

Arousal and control are both stepping-stones to flow. In arousal, a lot of lessons are learned, and in control, one is developing greater skill. But challenge yourself above or below your skill level and you fall into a state of anxiety or relaxation, giving our friend the instant gratification monkey a stage for his tricks. Only when the challenge levels are high and the skill level is high, can you reach a state of flow.

I am well aware that my editing skills as a kid were not of a “high” level. However, they were high enough that I could create what I envisioned. I loved creating with this medium, I received immediate feedback as I could rewind, play, change it if it was not right, and feel a sense of accomplishment when it was. And although my skills were high enough for my purpose I also was still being challenged as there was still so much to learn.

So, what did this teach me?

Learning about this subject allowed me to look at my ADHD and Hyperfocus from a unique angle. Additionally, it allowed me to remember that true feeling of ‘flow’ I used to feel so often as a kid. Of course, it taught me about the benefits and ways of reaching flow. But mostly, it made me realize why I so often feel anxiety, worry or boredom, and why I procrastinate on projects I am truly passionate about.

Take writing for instance; I have loved writing from a young age. But my dyslexia, deep insecurities resulting from unpleasant school years, and English being my second language, together created a resistance to writing long-form articles. Such as the one I am writing, and you are reading, right now. In this scenario, Csikszentmihaly’s flow module made me understand that I get anxiety and procrastinate because I never “properly” developed my writing skills. However, what I did develop over the years was a very high expectation of what I perceive to be good copy and content. This means, when I start to write, my work never lives up to my expectations. I can’t seem to form the sentences that I believe will accurately portray my message. What this has taught me, is that perhaps my procrastination on my passion projects, or things I really want to do, is because of my unrealistic high expectation. My own challenge is simply too high for my skills.

Which leads me to my final thought; since skill can be acquired through hard work and practice, it means that we ultimately can all experience that sense of flow in areas we perhaps feel high anxiety today. And for me, that means starting to write articles and vulnerably posting them here, on medium. Forcing and pushing myself past worry and anxiety. In the hope of reaching that state of arousal (Did I reach this today?! Ah yeah.) or control. Where I will learn, develop my writing skills, and then, perhaps one day, bring you my thoughts out of a pure-state-of-flow.