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Dun, Dun, Dun: It’s Hyper-Focused Girl! [Is not being able to multi-task a superpower or a super pain?]

Posted Nov 28 2012 9:50am

See, you just have to be able to focus on the IMPORTANT stuff. Like making that perfect Look-at-me-being-all-cute-but-trying-to-smirk-a-little-so-I-don’t-look-like-a-narcissist face.

I used to be proud of my multi-tasking abilities. Juggle two jobs while raising four kids and still plan a date night with my husband? Just hand me my cape and I’ll jump over that (office) building in a single bound! But, like many things in life – my fashion sense, my cooking skillz and my ability to shave my legs with my eyes closed – my kids took me down a peg. Or ten. I still remember the day I realized that not only was multi-tasking not helping me balance my crazy life but that I actually sucked at it.

“Charlotte? Hi, this is Mrs. X, from your son’s preschool?”

“Oh hi, Mrs. X!” As I glanced at my phone I realized that this was the 3rd time the school had called me this afternoon. How had I missed that?

A long pause and then, “Is everything okay?”

“Oh yes! We’re doing great!” I enthused. It was when the word “we” left my lips that I realized why she was calling.

“Okay, so, when do you think you’ll be by to pick him up? He’s starting to get really worried about you.”

Ohcrapohcrapohcrap…. It was TWO HOURS past the end of school. “Now,” I squeaked.

I’d done one of those parenting things that’s really funny on sitcoms but horrifying in real life. I’d forgotten my 4-year-old at school. For two hours. Yes it was that bad and no I still don’t know how it happened except to say that my overloaded brain short-circuited. Oh I’m sure I was doing something important. Writing, probably. On a short deadline, most likely. But that day several years ago – and especially my son’s tears – made me sit down and really decide if “doing it all” was really doing me any favors. I realized that while everyone makes mistakes, this one had been coming for a long time as I increasingly made more little errors as I got busier and busier. It was time to turn in my SuperMom cape because I didn’t like this role anymore.

Scientists, in a study published in the American Psychological Review, say that despite the enduring stereotype of do-it-all moms, it turns out I’m not the only woman with this problem. According to the researchers we may multi-task a lot because we have to – about 10 hours per week more than our husbands – but we sure don’t like it.

“Multitasking may feel productive, but psychological research suggests our brains aren’t at their best when divided between two or more tasks. One 2010 study published in the journal Science found that the brain can juggle two tasks at once, but adding a third is a recipe for disaster. Even practiced multitaskers struggle with the overload. Indeed, according to research by Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, “the people who multitask the most are the worst at it.”

The weird thing is, while I’m awful at multi-tasking (and always have been despite all my protestations to the contrary), I’m really good at the opposite: Hyperfocusing. My laser-like ability to tune everything else out and focus on one task has been the subject of envy, entertainment and worry among my loved ones. On one hand, I get stuff done. On the other hand… Well, take last night for instance. I was working and my husband came up and started rubbing my shoulders. Not only did I not notice until he accidentally pinched me but when I did see he was doing something kind for me? I was pissed. Because I hate being interrupted. In fact, nothing makes me snap faster. Having someone pull me out of a task is so jarring to me it’s almost physically painful.

So is this single-mindedness an ability or a liability? That’s a question I’ve been asking most of my life.

“Many scientists, writers, and artists with ADD have had very successful careers, in large part because of their ability to focus on what they’re doing for hours on end,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the author of  ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life . ”But unrestrained intense focus is most often a liability. Left unchecked, it can lead to failure in school, lost productivity on the job, and strained relationships with friends and at home.”

Yes, ADD. As in attention deficit disorder. It may seem counter-intuitive, hyperfocusing is a primary symptom of adult ADD.   ”People who think ADD means having a short attention span misunderstand what ADD is,” says Nadeau. “A better way to look at it is that people with ADD have a disregulated attention system.” In addition to ADD, hyperfocusing can also be a symptom of low dopamine levels (there’s a reason I’ve been on anti-depressants most of my adult life) and being an HSP (highly sensitive person – something that I’m basically the poster child for).

Linking this to a diagnose-able disorder is of little importance to me. (And this wouldn’t be the first time a medical professional has suggested I have adult ADD.) But I’m not going to go  on any more medication and honestly I feel like I’ve learned to manage it fairly well over the last few years through modifying my behavior and my environment. Alarms and calendars (calendars with alarms!) are my new best friend – I have them in every room in the house. But it is important to me to understand why I do what I do and, more importantly, what it’s doing for me.

On the plus side, this hyperfocus makes me good at my job – whether that’s grading SAT essays or writing an article about how the U.S. Ski Team works out. (SO INTERESTING!!) It’s also adaptive. Being so sensitive to, well, everything – I have described it every since I was a child as feeling like I walk around with my skin on inside out – can make life very overwhelming very quickly. ”It’s a coping mechanism. It’s a way of dealing with the distraction,” says  Larry Silver, M.D., a psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington D.C. “College kids with ADD tell me they have to intentionally go into a state of intense focus to get work done.”

But it also means I forget my kids places, space important events like friends’ birthdays or interviews and generally spend a large amount of time apologizing and playing catch-up.

In the end I honestly don’t know if I think this is a superpower or a super drag. Being that it’s just the way I’m wired though I suppose the distinction doesn’t matter. But I do need help learning how to channel this!

Are you more of a multi-tasker or a hyperfocus-er like me? How do you deal with it? Anyone have any tips for me? (Please??) And if not, feel free to tell me a story about how you forgot a kid (or were forgotten as a kid)  to make me feel better:)




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