The Indistractible Child

Katy BurkeUncategorized

a teenager hyperfocused on painting

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Schools call it a problem, the flip side of distractibility and an identifying feature of ADD (ironically). Entrepreneurs and some progressive corporations call it a superpower, the heartbeat of “Deep Work”. For good or for bad, ‘’hyperfocus” has our attention, mine included — not as an academic or scholar on the subject, but as someone who has lived with it my whole life. I want to understand it in a practical way and help others, particularly young people, who are discouraged and trying to manage their attentiveness.  Basically, hyperfocus is when someone fixates their attention on something intensely for a period of time. Everyone seems to agree that when this happens, the person loses their sense of time and place and cannot be distracted. Depending on the situation this can be viewed as excessive or an asset. Some people go to great lengths to make this happen, and others can’t help it from happening. For those in the latter position, I don’t see it as pathology or genius, but simply an aptitude, that like many abilities comes with some undesirable side effects.  It took me a long time and a lot of confusion, frustration and shame to come to this conclusion.

Ironically, people who hyperfocus often appear unfocused, when in reality they are acutely attentive to something in particular that is not considered a priority at the given time (or ever). As a kid, I had the misfortune of being the only person in my family with this tendency to fixate my attention. I remember hearing repeatedly  “Earth to Katy” or “That’s Katy for you” followed by laughter because I had missed something obvious in the observable world. I felt pretty stupid and was often afraid to speak my thoughts for fear of exposing my ignorance. It also didn’t help that the things I did perceive were foreign or insignificant to others. It seemed that a lot of my friends and family weren’t catching what I was throwing. This only reinforced the hyperfocusing habit because it was then I felt free. My mind was my playground. Road trips were an infatuation because I had free reign to hyperfocus for hours on end. Sometimes I would even plan the subject of my fixation ahead of time, and I was sincerely upset with forced interruptions, like when we had to make a bathroom stop — even if I needed to go. I was immersed. Now I have a daughter who shares this trait, and I have to remind myself to show grace when I discover her sitting down, just staring off in her room when she should be getting dressed for school. “Oh I forgot Mom, I’m sorry!” I know it’s not an excuse because I catch myself doing the same thing. It can get a lot more extreme as well. I have a friend who has literally forgotten to go to work because he was so engrossed in thought.

What the heck could someone be so intensely focused on that he forgets to go to work? Or that she would rather hold her protesting bladder than pause her imagination? There are pet topics hyperfocusers turn to, but really, it could be anything. It could be an elaborate fantasy with meticulously edited dialogue, an exploration of a complicated problem, an analysis of some phenomena, endless connections drawn between two unlike things, and much more. I once spent an entire evening contemplating the oddity of durian fruit.

It can appear trivial and impractical, but hyperfocusing can lead to incredibly meaningful work. Thought is the primary component of hyperfocusing, but it often also involves research, problem-solving, writing, experimentation and creation. And even if it is “just” thought, it’s not for naught. It’s not uncommon for influential people to take extensive time just for thinking. Charles Dickens, for example, would take three hour walks everyday, continuing a story in his mind.

It’s important that we value all kinds of minds, not just with our words but with the expectations that we put on people. At Princeton Learning Cooperative, the environment enables me to create a work structure that works in my favor, and the kids do the same. I’ve also created a short course for our center called Becoming Self-Driven to help young people manage similar focusing struggles and to value their strengths. After years of frustration with myself, I’m so grateful for that opportunity to help people escape the same fate. Stayed tuned for a follow-up blog post on how to manage if you or your child is a hyperfocuser like me.