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What’s the Difference between Hyperfocus and Hyperfixation?

Good question, and a question I can answer by using my model railway as an example.

Model railway firestone building by Rick Green

Transcript of video
Hyperfocus versus Hyperfixation, what’s the difference? it’s a good question, it is confusing, in fact when i started looking into it I found a number of different explanations online.   So i thought about the difference between Hyperfocus and Hyperfixation based on my own experience and this may or may not add to the confusion, but here’s my take on it.
First let’s get clear about what hyperfocus is, this trait surprises a lot of people who don’t have ADHD, they naturally assume that if you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder then you have a deficit of attention.  The truth is not always, we can focus when we want to or more directly we can focus when something interests our brain, whether we should be focused on that or not, and yes we are easily distracted, often lost in thought
tuning out.
That is the core aspect of ADHD but like so many symptoms there is a flip side, some of us can at times hyper focus, super focus.  This is an important distinction because people will dismiss the possibility of ADHD with well he can focus just fine when he’s interested or she can focus when it’s something she cares about, and they’re right, sort of, kind of, mostly.
I mean yes I can focus even hyper focus when it’s something that interests me, even when there are a slew of other things that i should actually be doing, urgent stuff i should be getting to, stuff I may actually want to get to, or okay want to have completed so I can get back to doing what interests me.
So this is not just a deficit of attention, it’s uneven attention.  So to me ADHD is a problem managing attention, managing focus and ideas. It’s forgetfulness, regulating what we focus on and what we don’t, what’s important and what’s not important.  Sometimes lost in thought, tuning out,
distracted, and other times we are super focused.
It’s a matter of degree which is why it’s called a spectrum disorder.
For example I can spend hours focused on building models for a local railway museum but never keep track of my hours or invoice for my time, or I might start working on a television script and I get locked in, hyper focused for hours and hours, and that’s great if it’s the script I’m supposed to be
working on at this point.
So hyper focus can be useful if I’m focused on the right thing.  Unfortunately I can easily latch on to something trivial, irrelevant but interesting to me and never attend to what is urgent, important, or or for some reason just doesn’t interest my brain.
So what’s going on?  Well on a neuro-chemical level a task or an idea doesn’t trigger the dopamine and the Norepinephrine, the brain chemicals, the neurotransmitters that you need to get the get up and go, and that’s the problem, and it’s ongoing.
As a kid i would always choose to work on my model railroad rather than the homework I should have been doing because i could hyper focus on trains for hours.  Of course then i was just a kid playing with toys and now as an adult?  It’s different today, when there’s a boring task like paperwork I can hyper focus on my model railroad still.   Still, today, 55 years later.   To me that’s not hyper focus on a particular task, that’s hyper fixation or at least some kind of fixation.
So my hyper focus looks like this,  my hyper fixation looks more like this.
Model railway by Rick Green
So which is this all of it?  Well it’s kind of both I suppose.   It actually requires me to get into hyper focus, to slow down and apply the paint carefully,
whereas 98% of the population would be bored, restless impatient, oh my god, model railroading shoot me now.
I have to note this has helped me to develop patience, it’s very meditative.  It’s more than just relaxing though, research has shown that when we’re engaged in a simple task, model railroading or needlepoint, knitting or gardening, whatever, it allows our unconscious or subconscious to work on problems, to solve things, to come up with ideas, creatively.
So often an idea will pop out of nowhere as i’m doing this, like did i leave the kettle on?  No I’m sure.
Whereas hyper fixation hyperfixation isn’t just a few hours enthralled in a task, this is ongoing and it might freak you out to see this level of
The standard reaction of a lot of visitors is wow!   Wow.  Wow? get out, start the car, run! and humans can also get hyper fixated on negatives on wrongs or hurts or perceived injustices.   Been there done that, unable to get over a romantic breakup,  a bad business deal, a nasty teacher or a bully 35 years ago who said blah blah blah blah blah, or sometimes it can be something quite understandable like being in combat or PTSD, a natural disaster, something like that.
Hyper fixation can also be a positive, it might well be what’s needed to create a company like apple computers or to spend your life trying to save an endangered species or you know….
So let’s sum this up, and this is just my perspective.  Yes hyper focus can make me very productive, it can also steal away my life playing Sudoku for
hours and hours and hours when i should be sleeping, or working or talking to people.
My hyper focus can last for hours, whereas hyper fixation lasts months, years, a lifetime.   So I tend to think of hyper fixation as a kind of an obsession, and it can be a good obsession.  Perhaps it’s a deep attachment to something like gardening, collecting star wars figures, repairing typewriters, something that many people would find boring and dull maybe, most of the world would find it boring and dull, but it triggers something here.
So let’s summarize.
Hyper focus to me, is a temporary state that you can fall into and out of.   Hyper fixation is something you come back to again and again and again. Not necessarily forever, the abiding passion can fade sometimes abruptly, like the ADHD student who after years of work finally finished their thesis and then can’t be bothered to hand it in, and they never get their doctorate, never get their diploma.
Or the ADHD bride finally walking down the aisle and realizing, yeah it’s not him, he’s not the one and realizing it was the thrill of the chase
and all the planning and all of the ritual.  Oh.
So we can suddenly snap out of hyper fixation realizing we don’t want to spend another five years obsessing, grieving, complaining, reliving whatever it is that happened, or it may be ‘I finally have the complete set. I’ve got them all, why did I spend half my life collecting McDonald’s toys?’ or playing video games, when I could have been…. model railroading.
What time is it?  3am?!
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    1. diamondr August 31, 2020 at 11:09 pm

      Rick, I LOVE all your modeling work! It teaches us a new thing about our friend! (that is you by the way) When I hyperfocus (hf) my sensitivity can make me really grumpy. For example, let’s say I am hyperfocused on my hobby. My husband is cooking. No biggie (because by now I don’t even realize I’m married let alone that he is in the building.) But then suddenly he drops a large metal pan lid that jolts me out of hyperfocus. In split seconds of time, I’m internally angry at the loud sound, angry that it jolted me, angry that now I have to regroup and how dare he drop that pan lid on purpose?! Externally I KNOW that he didn’t do it on purpose, but by the time my mouth quits saying his name, I learn that I blurted out “are you alright?” in an accusatory tone that implies he best be unconscious. So, so frustrating! My hyperfixation example is the four years it took me to quit thinking of all the angst I suffered from a micromanaging boss. The 4 years were AFTER I quit the job. So the boss, the environment, the sounds, the teeth grinding were all gone, but I was still healing. Every single day. For four years! …all the while KNOWING in my head that the hyperfixation was just w r o n g on so many levels. LOVED this video. Thanks!!

    2. roysyd1 September 16, 2020 at 2:45 pm

      Thanks for this, Rick. I hadn’t heard of hyperfixation before. I can relate to it all, including the model railroading (except for the tiny buildings and people), the long fixation on old loves and bullies. Very helpful, thanks.

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