Adapted from Faster Than Normal: Turbocharge Your Focus, Productivity, and Success with the Secrets of the ADHD Brain by Peter Shankman, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Peter Shankman.
Our modern concept of ADHD as defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s bible, the DSM-IV-TR, is relatively new compared with other defined neurological issues. However, excessively hyperactive, inattentive and impulsive children and adults have been both observed and described since at least the 19th century — and likely earlier.
Today we can look back in history and see that some of our most respected and important scientists and inventors likely had ADHD. Many of them have certain traits in common: a pattern of rebellious youth; below average or average performance in educational settings; a tendency to switch between seemingly unrelated pursuits; a tendency to struggle with everyday tasks; and a seemingly superhuman ability to hyperfocus for long periods at a time, usually followed by a long period of either lull or engagement in something completely unrelated. Here’s a partial list of these people, in no particular order:
- Albert Einstein
- Thomas Edison
- Leonardo da Vinci
- Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway, which of course I bought the second it hit the market)
- Walt Disney
- The Wright brothers
- Stephen Hawking
- Steve Jobs
- Richard Branson
What do all these greats have in common? They were thought of as different, but adapted accordingly and helped change the world. In other words, they did what worked for them, in a way that allowed them to achieve vast success.
Hyperfocus is a common but little-known asset of ADHD. As the name implies, it is the ability to focus intensely on something for hours or days at a time. Others might describe this feeling as being in work mode or a state of flow.
It occurred to me that if I could figure out what makes me successful, what makes me different, what makes me “faster than normal,” I could not only figure out ways to help myself, but possibly, ways to help the rest of the world as well, both those with ADHD and those involved in the life of someone with it. I could possibly even help those who have no connection to ADHD at all — because, let’s face it, one of the keys to using ADHD as your superpower is understanding how to channel your hyperfocus. And who wouldn’t benefit from learning that?
A little-known secret is that anyone can get into hyperfocus mode with some simple changes to their workspace and some specific, yet easy-to-follow rules:
In order to achieve hyperfocus, several things need to happen at the same time. You need to be in an environment conducive to hyperfocus, you need to eliminate distractions, and set up a system that allows you to still be accessible to clients or staff, but without taking you out of your zone of focus.
They key is to compartmentalize your workweek, your workspace and your thoughts.
For example, I allow two days a week for meetings. These could be mandatory staff meetings, new business pitches, sales calls, anything that requires me to be in a room or conversation with someone, whether physically or virtually. Mondays and Fridays are my meeting days, and I’ve accepted that I won’t get much productive work accomplished on either of those days.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays, however, are as interruption-free as possible. My assistant knows to play gatekeeper for me, and she doesn’t schedule anything on my calendar if at all possible.
Before I leave my office Monday evening, I clean my desk, throw out anything I can and file the rest. When I get into the office early Tuesday morning, I have a blank canvas, and a to-do list that I can start immediately, without any fear of interruption.
My productivity soars midweek, because I’ve planned for it, and trained my brain to do what’s needed to make sure that happens. It didn’t come overnight, but once I got it, it’s only gotten stronger.
It’s not easy though, and constantly requires maintenance. I’m up before dawn every day, so I can exercise for at least an hour each morning before I hit the office. The endorphins, dopamine and serotonin that I generate during those workouts carry me through the entire day better than any ADHD medication or drug ever could. I avoid processed food as much as possible, drink more water each day than most people do in a week and am obsessive about getting enough sleep. I also quit drinking a few years ago, because that was the biggest impediment to me being able to live and work the way I know is most productive and efficient for me.
Studies have shown that each interruption that kicks us out of a “deep work” zone, (think an email alert, a Slack beep or a Facebook notification) can actually cost us 30 to 45 minutes of productivity, as we struggle to get back into the work flow we lost when we were interrupted. Over the course of a year, that adds up to hundreds, if not thousands of hours of lost productivity.
Training my brain to get into hyperfocus and stay there is directly responsible for a good portion of my professional success.
The fact is, the true ADHD brain, when given that boost of chemicals it so greatly desires, can become the most focused being on the planet. I’m not joking when I say that if I set myself up right, I can sit down and hyperfocus on the same task for six hours. Heck, how do you think I’m currently writing this?
The great part of all of this is that during the time your brain is “supercharged,” you can accomplish things better, faster and more creatively than “regular” people. It’s the equivalent of running a race with a human being when you’re Superman.
Having ADHD allows you to supercharge your brain when you need it, letting you hyperfocus on tasks, solve problems in untraditional ways and come up with ideas that haven’t been thought of before.
I suppose it’s possible that we come up with these ideas because our brains are moving too fast to stop and say, “Hey, why hasn’t anyone done this already?” But, I don’t think it really matters. What matters is being able to call on your brain’s “boost” feature when you need it, and use it to your advantage.
Related Video: 11 Ways to Avoid Distractions and Stay Focused