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

by Charlotte on November 28, 2012 · 16 comments

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:)




{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Geosomin November 28, 2012 at 9:25 am

I’m a multitasker. Unfortunately it means I don’t always give things the full care and attentiont hey deserve, but man can I get a lot done if I need to. My challenge is to slow down and really enjoy and focus on what I’m doing if I have a lot going on. My husband is more like you. We definitely help balance each other out.
My mum was very much for the forgetting of things. I can think of at least 6 separate occasions when my mum forgot to pick me up at summer camp or at an event. She was a full time nurse and once she went back to work, she somehow kept the house spotless, made all our meals even when not home, worked and did all the rest…and so she sometimes got too frazzled and missed things. Oddly I never took it personally because I was so wrapped up in whatever I was doing at the time and had fun. She and I knew I was fine, so we were. :)


Alyssa (azusmom) November 28, 2012 at 9:34 am

My husband once forgot to pick up our son. Not me!!!!! (She says, jumping up and down & sticking her tongue out at her beloved life partner.)
I’m a multitasker with a hyperactive brain. I have A LOT of trouble focusing on one thing at a time. I ws terrible at studying, and today it takes at least 2 or 3 tries to finish any paperwork. My parents never believed me when I told them that having music on while I did my homework helped me focus, but it was true. Working in total silence was torture. Since having kids I’ve come to appreciate ( and miss) silence.


Karen November 29, 2012 at 2:41 am

I am the same when studying and so glad to hear someone else say the same thing ! I remember once at university intentionally going to the cafeteria in the middle of lunch so I could find enough noise to focus.

As to the story of forgetting I heard a great confession on the radio by 2 parents out shopping with their toddler and new baby who had the bottom seat in a double stroller. So consumed were they with their normal routines upon returning to the car that they did not realise until they were both in the car and the key was in the ignition that the new baby had been folded up with the pram and closed in the boot ! The baby was fine but I imagine that guilt took a while to ease.


Geosomin November 29, 2012 at 8:44 am

I study better with music on too. Interesting…


kavesu November 28, 2012 at 11:11 am

I’m a super focus type, and also *hate* to be interrupted when I’m working on something which probably doesn’t make me the easiest person to be around. I get so into what I’m doing that hours just fly by without me noticing. What helps me is setting the voice on my computer to announce what hour it is every hour. What saves me the most grief is my phone calendar with a visual widget on the home page that shows my next several appointments/due dates, it has alarms too.


carrie November 28, 2012 at 12:26 pm

I’m probably in the middle ground between multi-tasking and hyper focus – no real problems either way. But I do have a story of being forgotten by my Mom. I was in 5th grade and had been driven to our middle school for a soccer practice. This was in the 80′s. Practice was over – all the other kids were picked up, coaches went home. But I was still there. A janitor let me in to use the payphone to place collect calls home (no cell phones!). There was no answer. Eventually the janitor left and I was locked out of the school (who leaves a kid alone??). It was dusk and a 20 minute drive from home (it was NOT walkable). My Dad worked late nights and I didn’t have his phone number. So I sat there for hours. Until finally my Dad pulled up. He was so mad he wouldn’t even talk to me. Apparently he got home where my Mom was taking a nap and asked where I was. She hadn’t heard the phone ring because she HAD UNPLUGGED IT so she could sleep. Up until now I was always so hurt because I was clearly not a priority for her (and I was an only child) – but now I’m wondering if she was dealing with a physical or mental issue at the time. She has a terrible memory so I can’t ask her about it – but it just helps to post this and get it out there!


Abby November 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm

I’ve become pretty convinced that I have adult ADD too. I’ll have the hardest times staying focused in meetings at work but I also have the same hyperfocus you’re talking about. I get mad at my fiance for interrupting me too! It takes me a while to sit down and focus on one task but once I do, I can go forever.

Don’t feel bad about forgetting your son! My parents and my grandparents all managed to leave my 2 year old brother in a restaurant. We had dinner and the women went to go to the bathroom while the guys paid the check. Everyone reconvened at the car where it occurred to them that no one had the baby. He was happily walking on the bench in the waiting area but I remember my mom almost having a heart attack.


Kathryn November 28, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I am naturally a super-focus type (having sore neck from becoming so engrossed in my drawing/sewing/book that I have not noticed that I have the posture of a hunchback is a common occurrence), but I have adapted to multitasking since becoming a teacher. “What’s that? I need to grade this piece of writing, extend my capable kids, support my struggling kids, sort out why Ashlee is crying and come up with a maths lesson on the spot because Art has been moved from 11-30 to 1-30? Okie dokie.”

I’ve gotten better at it with practice and loooots of deep breathing.


Erin November 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm

As someone who is married to a guy with adult ADD but who is pretty good at multitasking, well, yeah. It can be a struggle sometimes. No advice. Just commiseration.


Claire November 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm

I’m yet to have kids but my husband forgot me once if that makes you feel better?
I multi task, ok I’ve read the research I may just switch quickly between lots of things but I get bored so quickly that it still produces better, faster work. Each to their own?…


Jody - Fit at 54 November 28, 2012 at 8:57 pm

I am NOT a multi tasker yet I don’t think I have your great ability either!!! At my age, I would probably forget my head if I could take it off & leave it somewhere! ;) I try though! :)


Nate November 28, 2012 at 9:01 pm

I just forwarded this to my wife. Yes, that’s how important this article is. I’m willing to risk my life to be asked, “Why did you send this to me?” “What are you saying about me?” haha – YES! She’s NOT the only Hyper-focuser in this world!

PS. Note that I capitalised the h in Hyper-focuser. That’s because it is now an official title! Like Dr.

I wonder if you can get a degree in hyper-focusing?


Bek @ Crave November 28, 2012 at 11:01 pm

I’m a multitasker and that’s my problem and one of my anxiety issues. I never live in the moment!


Naomi/Dragonmamma November 29, 2012 at 5:01 am

Like every other form of behavior, multi-tasking and focusing have a low-to-high range of normal and functional. It’s all about balance, and organizational skills matter. For example: List making. I used to make fun of my husband’s obsession with making lists, because he even lists things that are everyday items like “Brush my teeth” and “pack my lunch”. But I’ve come to appreciate the value of list making, because it really does matter on those super-busy days when you do things like leave the baby in the stroller.


Matt November 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm

In the words of the ever wise ferris Bueller;

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and take a look once in a while, you could miss it.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been trying to think of something to say and I’m about to miss my flight.


Emily Crow November 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Actually, multi-tasking isn’t even possible. Computers can do two or more tasks simultaneously; human brains cannot. What we call “multi-tasking” is merely switching quickly back and forth from item to item, and studies have shown pretty conclusively that people who do so *feel* more productive, but in reality take longer to complete tasks, and do so with more errors, than if they had done each task sequentially.

As for me, I am not sure how I would categorize my attention span. Since (at least) first grade onwards, I have been very easily distracted, and often lost in my own thoughts or daydreams. Probably part of the reason that I point out the flaws of “multi-tasking” is because my brain is usually wandering away from even a single task. I don’t consider this a problem, though. Or symptomatic of a condition to be medicated. It’s just the way I am, and I happen to like it! My life is much more interesting this way….and I still manage to do everything that really needs to be done.


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