Flow = Adult ADHD??

by Honolulu Mother

I was interested in this article’s suggestion that the experience of “flow,” when you’re intensely focused on your work and distractions seem to drop away, may actually be an expression of adult ADHD.

When Adult ADHD Looks Something Like ‘Flow’

If I weren’t distractible I wouldn’t be a Totebag regular, but when I shut my door and set my status to busy and really dig in to some big project I do experience flow and am often surprised to find that hours have gone by. Do you find this article to be consistent with your experiences?


54 thoughts on “Flow = Adult ADHD??

  1. After awhile, I start to think that ordinary human experience is being pathologized. Sometimes I’m scatterbrained, sometimes I focus for hours. It’s how humans work, usually.

  2. Isn’t everyone like this to some degree? I don’t think it matters unless it causes significant issues in your work or personal life. And for me, at least, it was a good thing when I really needed to be able to focus during timed activities like the SATs (rule of Finn).

  3. “Under the right conditions, hyperfocus is ADHD’s secret superpower.”

    This. It is such a relief to see my experience in words, since for so long I knew I learned/saw things differently but couldn’t figure out why (data set of one, after all). But hyperfocus is *why* I have succeeded in anything. I like puzzles, I like figuring things out, and that + ADD translated into getting sucked into the calculus problem set until it all made sense — and then being stunned when my roommates came home and told me it was 3 hours later. Yeah, I was born smart, but I also found it much, much easier to put in the work on things that interested me than other people. (Things that didn’t interest me, OTOH. . . .)

    This is also why I get impatient/frustrated very easily with interruptions. Once you’re in that hyperfocus state, it’s massively easy to continue — but it takes a big hunk of energy to get there in the first place. It’s like hiking the Ridge at Taos, up the steeps with your ski boots on, schlepping all your gear — but (in the hyperfocus world, at least) you suffer through that for 10-15 minutes, and then you can coast down the far side for hours. But if the phone rings or someone pops their head in or whatever, you start all over again. So all of the interruptions of the normal workday “cost” me a lot more than the interrupter thinks — even if it’s just 2 minutes to answer a simple question, I still have to hump all the way back up the effing mountain to get back to where I was. (Which, I have just realized, probably explains my overwrought response to WAH with an invalid — it’s really Not That Hard to bring food, bring drinks, bring medicines, assist in bathroom runs, etc. — but the every-hour-or-so demands mean I am expending probably 10x the usual mental energy shifting back and forth). And people who naturally shift from thing to thing (like, say, DH), just don’t understand, so it’s hard to get much empathy or sympathy there.

    OTOH, Caye is an idjit. “Overcompensation”? Because, what, if we just try harder we can overcome? And we recognize that we’re just not trying hard enough to handle the minutiae of life, so we try super super duper hard to excel in one particular area to atone for our failings elsewhere? Dude. If I could control my attention well enough to “overcompensate” by that much, I’d have much preferred to control it well enough not to have had to drop the same (terminally boring) class twice, or not to have missed my car inspection deadline, or not to have walked to school without a coat in February because I didn’t notice it was cold, or etc. etc. etc. The more accurate analogy is that my attention is like a big old rare earth magnet floating through a vast sea of stimuli — I have absolutely no idea what it is going to attach itself to, but once it does, that’s pretty much all she wrote, barring the application of excessive energy to dislodge it.

  4. This sounds like a description of the absent minded professor, or more than half of my family. Hyperfocus is only awesome when it works to let you solve a problem, and/or when you have a full time domestic spouse/housekeeper/parent/caretaker/enabler (for home tasks) or handler/assistant/lackeys (for work tasks) to make sure that life “flows” for all other aspects that affect you and anyone for whom you are responsible.

  5. I fall into flow very easily, and am not easily distracted once I’m in it. But I don’t have any ADD or ADHD.

  6. Once you’re in that hyperfocus state, it’s massively easy to continue — but it takes a big hunk of energy to get there in the first place.

    Yes! And I get So. Many. Interruptions. in my work day. And then I think, now where was I again? Eh, might as well check the Totebag. ^_^

  7. ” And I get So. Many. Interruptions. in my work day. And then I think, now where was I again? Eh, might as well check the Totebag. ^_^”

    ha! Exactly!

  8. For a child or adult with ADHD, the determining variable is interest — if the person loves to play music, they can do it for hours. If they hate doing dishes, they will clean one dish, lose focus, and jump to another activity.

    Isn’t everyone more willing to do something the like than something they don’t?

  9. “Isn’t everyone more willing to do something the like than something they don’t?”

    Well, yeah. :-) It’s a question of order of magnitude. It’s hard to explain, and I am making a bunch of assumptions here — I have never had a “normal” brain, just like normal people have never had an ADD brain, so I can only infer from the way people talk. But IME, the magnet example is the best one: trying to focus on something dull is like forcing together the two N poles of a strong magnet — you can do it, but it takes a lot of effort, and the two magnets are always actively trying to slide off and around each other, so you are constantly pushing them together and trying to hem them in, and then sometimes they still slide off despite your best efforts. Generally, I can accomplish it when absolutely necessary — but it takes a ridiculous amount out of me to do so, and I can do it for only so long and so many times over the course of the day. My brain is like a battery that can only supply so much power over the course of the day before it needs to recharge; if I can push it up the effing hill once and slide down the rest of the day, I can get a ridiculous amount of really good stuff done, but if I have to spend it forcing the magnets together, or repeatedly climbing the hill, I’m done by lunch.

    The key is to learn to work with it. E.g., I will *happily* do something boring to avoid doing something really boring, so if I set a few tasks for the day, my aversion for the worst one can help get the less terrible ones done — added bonus that sometimes the hyperfocus will then set in once I get started, say, cleaning my closet, and then the whole thing is done. Also, panic is a great motivator.

    “And then I think, now where was I again? Eh, might as well check the Totebag. ^_^”

    @HM: *Exactly*. Because it’s sooo much more appealing than starting the trudge up that hill again.

    “Hyperfocus is only awesome when it works to let you solve a problem, and/or when you have a full time domestic spouse/housekeeper/parent/caretaker/enabler (for home tasks) or handler/assistant/lackeys (for work tasks) to make sure that life “flows” for all other aspects that affect you and anyone for whom you are responsible.”

    @Meme: Yes. It sucks being both ADD *and* the person primarily responsible for daily logistics. It is our constant balancing act. I’m even pretty mild on the ADD scale, but I still don’t do well keeping track of daily life stuff, but I’m the one with more flexibility/time to do so; DH, OTOH, is organized and efficient (his Myers-Briggs came out as “Field Marshall,” and ITA), but he’s working 50+ hr weeks and tends to have blinders for all of the stuff that is not within one of his specific assigned zones. The only way we get through is the massive application of coping skills (e.g., if it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist; Wegman’s app/grocery delivery; cleaners/mowers; etc.) + learning to be, umm, flexible with standards when needed (last night, dinner was hot dogs and cheese sauce, followed by popcorn and chocolate and a rented movie).

  10. after DS was diagnosed with ADHD and then DH was as an adult, I have realized I probably have it as well… no point really, I was always high functioning in school, made good grades, not sure my parents would have seen about it any way unless there was behavior problems along with it at school (there weren’t)

    And I get So. Many. Interruptions. in my work day. And then I think, now where was I again? Eh, might as well check the Totebag. ^_^”

    ha! Exactly!

    this is me many times a day

  11. (last night, dinner was hot dogs and cheese sauce, followed by popcorn and chocolate and a rented movie).

    dinner at your house sounds fun!

  12. For me, setting aside time to do chores and and drudge work and tackling those detested tasks is a better solution.
    That way it doesn’t feel like I have an up and down hill but more like a smooth plain. Not worrying about the must be done drudgery enables me to focus on the things that I like better. Seems like the opposite of what LfB is saying.

  13. Wine – my son was recently diagnosed with ADHD. In reading up on it, I think many members of DH’s family have it, but not in a hyper way (like my kid) but in the spaced out way. For them, “flow” or being in the zone can look like daydreaming or spacey.

    Good chance it runs in my family as well but like you never seemed to cause problems.

  14. LfB, DW and I both used to work with people like that.

    DW’s group seemed to learn to take advantage of that, typically single-threading people. They also organically developed a protocol of using email to ask each other questions, even of the person sitting in the next cube, and not expecting an immediate response, so as not to disturb someone who’s gotten into “the zone.”

    Whenever someone got an immediate response to an email, that was a sign that the respondent was not in “the zone,” and it was an appropriate time for a conversation.

    I think the main reason that protocol developed and was largely followed is because so many of the people in her group understood the cost of those interruptions.

  15. Ahhh, Finn, I SO love your DW’s group. I’ve been struggling with this more over the past @3 years since I took on a new part-time role within the firm, which requires me to be available to everyone for certain types of questions, usually on a fairly short-term basis (and, of course, since it’s all lawyers, everyone thinks their question is high-priority, even when it’s not). So the number of daily interruptions has increased much more than the associated billable hours, which has been a big hit to my productivity on my “real” work that I still need to learn how to manage better. But you’re totally right: it works only when you have critical mass of people who understand the real impact of that “quick question.” Really, I just need to learn to lay down availability rules and stick to them — but it’s hard to do when part of my role is customer service.

  16. LfB – a closed door and the “do not disturb” function on your phone are your friends. I have the same difficulty cutting down on “quick” questions (and that’ is how they are always posed) and other frequent interruptions. I have taken to shutting off access during specified periods, usually for an hour or so. I get so much more done that way.

  17. LfB – I am terrible at taking my own advice, BTW. I am supposed to be focused on finally getting some boring, time consuming work out of the way. Instead, I am checking of this site, my personal phone, etc., avoiding this work.

  18. Not sure I ever experienced “flow” in the distant past, but after having kids there is always a part of my brain “on call” for their needs, even though they are young adults. DH is not wired that way, and can easily be so consumed with work or cooking (which is like work for him in the single-minded focus he brings to that task) that he does not know what is happening around him. People come and go right past him and he doesn’t even notice, so that I don’t even bother asking him, “Did DS leave for work yet?”

  19. Dammit Rhett – I was going to send in that article as a topic!

    I’m interested because (1) it speaks to my upbringing (2) according to this article, I’m a millenial, and (3) don’t we all have a love/hate relationship with credit?

  20. Rhett – I read that article and thought it was a great topic. I think it is in part a consequence of the gig economy – if you don’t have a regular paycheck coming in, how can you borrow money?

  21. Scarlett – I only get into that mode now when I am reading a particularly good book. :) Otherwise I always have half an ear out for interruptions (usually the kids).

  22. Dammit Rhett – I was going to send in that article as a topic!

    CofC – can you add it to the queue?

  23. LfB, did you ever watch that movie? I love the music, but the movie is quite anachronistic.

    OTOH, a lot of old movies and musicals are similarly anachronistic. My Fair Lady is another that comes to mind.

  24. a lot of old movies and musicals are similarly anachronistic

    As compared to Spamalot’s gritty and realistic portrayal of 5th century Britain, or Cowboys and Aliens’ critically acclaimed exposition of a little-known incident in the history of the Western expansion.

  25. @Finn, yes, I completely adore that movie.

    Then again, I am rather fond of movies-with-a-point-that-you-couldn’t-make-today. :-) Like, say, Blazing Saddles.

    @HM — snarf. Well played.

  26. I’m not so sure Blazing Saddles, had it not already been made, couldn’t be made today (other than some problems like Harvey Korman is no longer alive). Classics stand the test of time.

    I was quite familiar with a lot of the music from Finian’s Rainbow before I saw the movie– a lot of the songs, e.g., Old Devil Moon, were standards. But I wasn’t crazy about the movie, and when I watched it recently, DS watched part of it with me and remarked about how un-PC it is, and he didn’t think it could be revived any time soon.

  27. @Finn — IDK. Given the persistent subset who try to ban Huck Finn, I have trouble seeing anyone dare try to remake a show that relies so strongly on the N-word to make its point. Then again, FR does have the double-whammy of “portraying racism to combat racism” AND “tobacco is our savior.” So while I think it might survive the racism part, you may be right in the end, because the tobacco thing would likely bring it down. Although they did stage a revival a few years ago (but I think post-meltdown was not the optimal time for Broadway).

  28. @LFB – sent you an email.

    I have had great flow in a few instances in hobbies or in school. My job is absolutely anti-flow – I never get any awesome zen efficiency or focus. Things they should tell you at career day…..

  29. I can’t focus the way Mr WCE can on a problem, but I also have always wanted a more balanced life. Prekids, if I didn’t leave work on time, it was because there was an urgent problem that required my attention, not because I accidentally lost myself in my work for several extra hours. We got cell phones soon after marriage because I was tired of wondering where he was for hours. (Answer: Nothing nefarious, just working on equipment at work. He didn’t notice the time…)

    This is also part of why I didn’t get a PhD. The idea of working, alone, on a specialized problem for years on end, didn’t appeal to me a bit. I’m a juggler- I keep all the balls in the air, at home and at work, and if a ball is going to drop, I am aware of it and can keep the other balls in the air.

    I miss having more control over my time and attention than I have with four young children, one of whom can climb to the top of the kitchen table in under ten seconds, but life has seasons. So far, I can either adjust to what life requires or avoid deadly dull jobs. (A computational fluid dynamics summer internship taught me that I did not want a job in that field.)

    My MIL experiences flow when quilting, I think.

  30. HM – that looks like an angry, demanding baby :-). Rhode needs a sweet, calm little one.

  31. HM – I sorta wish I was… only because I’ve been so sick that I just want this over.

    Louise is right – I need the happy baby. My no-so-happy toddler is trying my every last nerve lately. This too shall pass.

  32. Is binge watching a show or reading an entire book at night considered “flow”?

    I think so. I have little patience to watch beyond 1-2 tv shows at a time, or to even watch a complete football game, though I like the sport.

  33. My first reaction after reading the title of this post was -alright, today we are talking about Aunt Flo?

    I hardly get in the zone anymore unless I am reading a really good book. I am feeling more and more scatter brained day by day.

    Was away for a few days, but reckon a big congratulations goes to Rhode!

  34. I have all kinds of imperfections, but ADD/ADHD isn’t one of them. I definitely experience flow, though.

    I wouldn’t say I’m gracious about being interrupted in those moments, either! My secretary once said, during a conversation about random things, “Well, you’re one of the ones who really can’t stand being interrupted. I mean, it’s obvious that it *really* bothers you.” Yikes! I had no idea it was that obvious. It’s like Resting B**** Face; I clearly have Interrupted B**** Face (IBF). I’ve been trying to be much better about it, at work and home. I still have a looooong way to go.

    The worst thing is that at home, I swear the kids’ and DH’s interruptions are *only* for really sweet things: to kiss me and say, “I love you,” or some other lovely thing. Not that they would deserve IBF if they were saying something ridiculous, but they sure don’t deserve it when they’re saying something nice! Often, I’ll respond in some way (not nearly as nice as they were), then when they leave the room, I’ll realize what they said/did and what my response is, and just feel terrible, and commit to being better. But sure enough, the next time I’m in flow and they pop their head in to say, “I love you, Mom!” or whatever, they get IBF again.

  35. I’m like Houston and can not watch TV for any length of time. It drives my husband crazy because I cannot watch a full movie – I always have to get up and do something. I will occasionally force myself to just sit and watch the whole movie with him, but it takes more effort than my way. I do get in the zone for interesting work projects, researching things I’m interested in, or with a really good book. Post-kids, I definitely work harder to concentrate completely on one thing.

  36. “It’s like Resting B**** Face; I clearly have Interrupted B**** Face (IBF).”

    @Ris — YES!!! I do the kid thing too, and it *kills* me. Especially when DS is just so excited about something and wants to show me and I growl at him and his face just falls. I have to consciously train myself to stop, think, and compose my face and tone of voice before I turn around.

  37. @LfB _ I just picked up on your vent on last weeks thread about all the screwups with camp and your DD’s surgery etc. I have said this before to you both publicly and privately, and you yourself poke fun at your “thriftiness” that allows you to feel middle class despite the Tuscan rental and the NM vacation home, but please spend money where it matters, such as for household help to allow you and your DH to do your jobs and your family to live in something more relaxing than constant fire drill status – perhaps you could ratchet down funding everything to the max for bit to finance it – you are not in bag lady danger. You are an amazing person but there is no reason you should expect to be able to manage all those home details, especially with your own attention – type issues.

  38. Risley, I think you want to control your IBF, not eliminate it. In certain situations, like perhaps at work, I imagine it is useful to be able to communicate that it is not a good time to interrupt you, but without being rude or mean.

    Perhaps it might be helpful to warn your secretary in advance when you need to be undisturbed.

  39. Houston, MBT, I have a hard time sitting still for too much tv / movie too. I thought it was just me!

  40. I also tend to not sit still to watch TV or movies at home, mainly because there’s always so much stuff to do, and I can get some of the mindless stuff (e.g., putting away dishes, folding laundry) done while watching.

  41. Risley, LfB, I’m wondering if at least some of your coworkers and family members haven’t figured out when and when not to bother you. Courteous people would tend to look for signs first.

    Perhaps others just can’t empathize or sympathize, but just barging in on you when you’re doing something is not courteous. That’s the sort of behavior often associated with self-centered jerks.

  42. Agreed WRT young kids who haven’t yet learned, or had a chance to learn, courtesy and impulse control.

    Among adults, it can also be cluelessness, as opposed to self-centered jerkiness. It’s harder to get mad at the clueless, but the effect on your productivity is the same (less the distraction of getting mad at the SCJ).

  43. @Meme — Thank you. Just wanted to let you know I did see this and have been thinking about how to do something like that (where’s Alice your friendly housekeeper when you need her?). I just keep thinking we’re soooo close (DD driving in less than a year!) — but then something like this always happens and [boom].

  44. Hyperfocus? Absolutely valid! I know hyperfocus from all sides: teacher, mother, and mainly myself! I’m more ADHD without the hyperactivity, and it appears that the “without” might, according to new findings, be drastically different from the “with hyperactivity”. But yes, the hyperfocus is still a huge element from my experience. Honestly, I feel like I have no “on” button, but with Concerta, I basically have no “off” button. Whatever I start is what I continue, so without a list and a timer, I’m stuck on whatever I start. For me, hyperfocus “can” be a good friend, but my friend still needs me to make a plan and work my plan. Thank goodness for timers!

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