This post is based on an email consultation (service no longer offered), which the consultee gave permission to post so more people may benefit from the information. Thank you!
The second of 3 related questions she asked was:
What tools and techniques help with the balance between hyperfocus and distractions? (fractal distractions upon distractions)
Mindful self-focus & distraction
This is a really fascinating question, which seems to have many potential angles. I will cover several in this post. Let’s start with an interesting paper from 2009 by Silke Huffziger and Christine Kuehner, which shows that:Rumination, distraction, and mindful self-focus in depressed patients (Huffziger & Kuehner, 2009)
- Both mindful self-focus and distraction showed clear beneficial effects on the course of negative mood, compared to rumination.
- In other words, focusing on your emotions in a constructive and mindful manner as well as distracting yourself is better for your mood than the focused attention on the symptoms of your distress.
- But while habitual distraction results in better mood outcomes, people that are high in habitual mindfulness tended to show stronger negative mood reduction, specifically after the induction of a mindful self-focus.
The study shows that mindful self-focus and distraction are both able to reduce negative mood in depressed patients specifically. But with mindful self-focus, you are able to reduce negative moods long-term. The reason for this is that mindful self-focus is a technique that promotes (self-)awareness, and better processes emotions in a constructive manner, and internal conflicts can be brought to resolution.
Distraction, on the other hand, evades the processing of emotions. When I get overwhelmed, I might distract myself with something by channeling my focus elsewhere. This can effectively reduce my emotional state as I divert focus away from my triggers. But while this allows me to self-regulate, it doesn’t lead to insight or self-awareness.
For that reason, I might use distraction as a tactic to reduce anxiety initially, but when I enter a calmer state of mind, it’s good to reflect on why anxiety came up, or why an urge to distract myself came up. What was it that made me look for a coping mechanism?
The more mindful you are, the more control you can exert over your emotions, and the more in tune you will become with your feelings and emotions, leading to a reduction in alexithymia. I wrote more about that in the following post:
So between mindful self-focus and distraction, self-focus is the better choice if you are able to manage it. But the question was how to find balance between hyperfocus and distraction, not mindful self-focus. Interestingly, although both terms include the word ‘focus’, in one sense they are polar opposites.
Self-focus is bringing attention to yourself and your internal processes (leading to metacognition, which is thinking about the way you think). By contrast, although I suppose you could in principle hyperfocus on yourself, how I have always understood the term is that it’s long-lasting, highly focused attention onto a subject or task.Living “in the zone”: hyperfocus in adult ADHD (Hupfeld, Abagis, & Shah, 2018) Again, I suppose the subject could be yourself, and the task could be self-reflection, but in my experience, hyperfocus is externally oriented. When I am hyperfocused, I become so engrossed in what I do that the rest of reality escapes awareness.
Ultimately, I think, finding balance between hyperfocus and distraction is a matter of balancing what attention is being given to, and with what purpose. Note that:
- Hyperfocus can result from distraction, but the motivation is to turn attention to a subject of interest or a particular task. It’s complete absorption in a task, to a point where you ‘tune out’ everything else.
- Distraction can constitute intense focus on something, but away from the intended focus. It can come in two flavors:
- Focused/conscious distraction — The motivation can be to turn attention away from something else, to focus attention to something in order to divert it away from something else. That focusing of attention can turn into hyperfocus, but unlike with hyperfocus, the initial motivation isn’t about pursuing an interest, but about evading a trigger.
- Unfocused/subconscious distraction — The motivation can be to focus on something in particular (an interest or responsibility), which is undermined by other stimuli fighting for your attention.
I am quite fascinated with the idea that distraction and hyperfocus seem to be polar opposites at least in terms of attention, and yet both concepts have embedded within them their antithesis;
- Hyperfocus is all about channeling attention, and yet hyperfocus is strongly associated with distraction, and could be considered a form of focused yet subconscious distraction.
- Distraction is all about diverting attention away from intended focus, and yet you can’t get distracted without focus being channeled somewhere else (focus).
Hyperfocus & flow
What starts to connect all these concepts is the flow state, but I will get to that in a moment. First, we have to define some terms. Hyperfocus and flow seem very similar at first, but the distinction is important. Or maybe not—we will see!
- Flow means that you focus on the tasks at hand productively. It’s a desirable state of mind, where getting work done feels like a breeze.Hyperfocus vs Flow: Know the Difference | Keep Busy
- The term was coined in 1975 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian-American psychologist. That name will come up again later.
- Hyperfocus generally occurs when a person is engaged in an activity that is particularly fun or interesting.Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2019) However, it doesn’t necessarily have the same benefits as flow, and can actually get in the way of productivity.Hyper Focus vs. Flow: What’s the Difference? Why Does It Matter? | Max Brain Function
- Although most neurotypical people would likely report experiencing a hyperfocus-like state at some point in their life, it is most often mentioned in the context of autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD—conditions that have consequences on attentional abilities.Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2019)
So where lies this distinction? Well, according to an academic review from 2019 by Brandon K. Ashinoff and Ahmad Aby-Akel, hyperfocus and flow are the same phenomenon, but they note:Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2019)
Although we are mindful that just because two phenomena are descriptively similar, they are not necessarily mechanistically identical, there is no evidence to suggest that either flow or hyperfocus are distinct.
However, they also found that:Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2019)
- Psychiatric literature is more likely to use the word hyperfocus, and;
- Positive psychology literature is more likely to use the word flow.
But then there is an important distinction after all, because psychiatry is about treating mental illness and emphasizes maladaptive and negative thinking, while positive psychology emphasizes happiness, well-being, and positivity. The table below shows the common descriptive features of hyperfocus and flow, based on the most commonly reported features of hyperfocus and Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi’s criteria for flow.Flow theory and research (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009)
An example of hyperfocus is when a child becomes engrossed in a video game to a point where they do not hear a parent calling their name. I would experience this often as a child. And my short-term memory wasn’t great either, so even after my father caught my attention and called me to come down, I would decide to come “in one minute”, then quickly forget and once again be engrossed in Rollercoaster Tycoon, or Doom II, or whatever else I was playing.
So hyperfocus can feel nice, but it’s not necessarily productive. In my experience, it often doesn’t really feel like anything, except the next moment I look at the clock, a horrifying amount of time has passed. Flow, on the other hand, is the more desirable state, where even being productive can feel like no effort.
The distinction can still be very ambiguous, though. Earlier, I was so engrossed in writing this article, that I did not hear Natalie calling for me until she was calling for me loudly. I was amused by the fact I was hyperfocused on writing an article on hyperfocus. But it made me wonder, is it hyperfocus or flow? Based on what I have learned researching this article, I would say I was in flow, as I was experiencing work as being effortless. But at the same time, these days I don’t play games anymore. Instead, what I do for fun is watch a video, design, or write and research. So in my experience, I recognize that I am often unproductively hyperfocused, but often, the difference between hyperfocus and flow is lost on me, when I have fun being productive.
Flow & distractions
I mentioned how flow is what ties all the concepts I talked about earlier together. Here is how.
The original question was how to find balance between hyperfocus and distraction, and I explored the relationship between hyperfocus and distraction, and the idea that hyperfocus can be a distraction itself. For example, when I become hyperfocused on something that captures my interest but which detracts from the work I am supposed to do, then that is clearly a distraction.
So if it’s a matter of balancing focus and distractions, I think we ought to look at flow instead. Because at that point, you are finding a balance between prolonged, productive focus and distractions, rather than focused distraction and… distractions.
Do we really have to balance focus and distractions though? I mean, ideally, we would not get distracted, right? Or rather, we might allow ourselves to get distracted if the distraction leads to something productive, or is conducive in some way (i.e.your well-being). But if ideally we would not get distracted, why do we have to find a balance between focus and distraction?
Ultimately I think the object is to bring both the number of distractions and unproductive hyperfocus to a minimum. Instead, I think we have to find a balance between productive focus and mindful off-time. Generally, it’s not very conducive to your work or mental health to get distracted frequently; you can easily get disorganized, irritable,Dysfunctional Attention Processing in Children with Clinical Irritability (Camacho et al., 2020) and mentally exhausted through directed attention fatigue. Given our neurotic nature (neuroticism correlates with autism symptoms),Can the Five Factor Model of Personality Account for the Variability of Autism Symptom Expression? Multivariate Approaches to Behavioral Phenotyping in Adult Autism Spectrum Disorder (Schwartzman, Wood, & Kapp, 2015) I suspect autistic people tend to struggle with that already. It’s much better if you can channel your focus, whether it’s a focus on work or on recreational activities.
Needing time off from work is only natural. Pursue that. What we are ultimately balancing is not only what we bring our attention to, but how much cognitive effort we put into it. What is problematic about distractions is that it takes energy, yet generally they don’t lead to anything productive. Or rather, it is difficult to channel distractions into something productive or conducive. If you are able to, harness that! I mean, that would effectively turn distractions into a state of flow, which, if you are easily distracted, is probably the holy grail!
But for most people, distractions ultimately detract from the things we wanted or felt we needed to do. So if you want to get a sense of fulfillment as well as rest, be mindful of the work you do, and the time you take off from it.
Let me leave you with the one tool you should employ to find balance in your life, which is practice itself. That may sound way too general. Practice what?
Well, the brain repeats what it practices. The more you run a neuro-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. So if you find yourself getting distracted too often, or get engrossed in unproductive things, compensate! Compensate for distraction by practicing to stay focused for longer times. Compensate for unproductive focus by channeling your focus on productive things, and leaving the unproductive focus for leisure. Each time you make a decision contrary to your intuition (i.e. channeling focus where you would otherwise get distracted), you strengthen those neural circuits in your brain, and the choice will become easier each time. It’s the wolf you feed that grows stronger!
But this is not just about building and strengthening neural connections. Even more important is our ability to break down old neural circuits, in a process called synaptic pruning. This is where synaptic connections that get used less get broken down in an attempt to streamline connections and their functionality. This is also how your brain makes the physical space for you to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more. To learn more about synaptic pruning and its relationship to autism, read the post below.
Being mindful of what you do will play a significant role in channeling your attention to the right things, and strengthening particular neural circuits. It will take approximately 6 weeks to really notice changes,What is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains | Positive Psychology so you have to keep at it until it becomes habitual. But you should also be mindful of what you are mindful of. Because everything you think about causes resources to be allocated to that. The synaptic connections you use get strengthened, while the ones you don’t use get recycled and make room for other connections. So if you don’t care about pink elephants, don’t think about them!
To learn more about the power of the brain to restructure itself, watch the video about the work of psychiatrist and psychoanalist Norman Doidge below. (Note: I don’t agree with everything he says, especially with his description of autism as a “whole body disease”).
Considering constructing, streamlining, and strengthening neural circuits is a matter of allocating resources, you should also focus on getting enough sleep. When you learn a lot of new things, your brain builds connections, but they’re inefficient initially. So your brain needs to prune a lot of those connections away and build more streamlined, efficient pathways. It does that when we sleep,Your Brain Has A “Delete” Button–Here’s How To Use It | Fast Company so if you are having sleep problems or want to promote better sleep, also have a look at our short series on the topic.