I’ve just had a great idea. It’s been percolating around my brain for a while but the impulse to implement it is now! I’m going to work for 18 hours straight to get this incredible idea out of my head and it’s going really well, we are 80% of the way there and then… exhaustion. I’m done and the project never gets finished. We get told that it is our ADHD that makes us distracted, but actually in this case, as a result of hyperfocus, we are simply exhausted. Welcome to ADHD burnout.
It can be difficult for neurotypical people to understand how exhausting having ADHD can be as their experience is often being exhausted by it and by the behaviour of the person with ADHD. It’s only when neurotypical people understand that having ADHD can cause you to live in a state of chronic anxiety and to have not just one internal narrative running but to have competing internal narratives running continuously; all shouting over each other and doubting each other. It’s exhausting, I promise.
But we often focus on the perceived weaknesses of ADHD without reframing it as a superpower – which it can truly be if harnessed in the right way.
Let’s take hyper focus, a state of being that most productivity gurus and self help books try to teach you how to achieve. Hyper focus is a mental state whereby you are so fully engaged in the task you are doing that you block out the world and any distractions. It sounds counterintuitive that people with ADHD are able to hyper focus, but they really can and frequently do when it’s something that they are interested in. People have been known to hyper focus for hours on end without eating, drinking, or going to the toilet. I have frequently found myself in this state of flow, smashing through the work tasks I am engaged in, only to look up and realise that it is dark, everyone else has gone to bed, I’m hungry, and feel like I’m going to wet myself!
This is why I believe that people with ADHD can be brilliant in a crisis. They can have a way to hyper focus not due to interest in this case, but due to deadline – the pressure of the crisis itself.
The downside of hyper focus is what’s known as burnout. A feeling of exhaustion that can follow a period of hyper focus. You may have got the project done, overnight, in record time – but at what cost to your own health and well-being? If it takes you three days to recover, was it worth it?
So how do we ensure that we protect ourselves from ourselves and make sure that we don’t risk ADHD burnout following a period of intense hyper focus?
- Plan what success will look like – how will you know when the task is complete?
- Break down the goal into measurable milestones so that you are able to take breaks and pick up the next phase of the work easily
- Set alarms and reminders to take a break
- Schedule regular mealtimes
- Make sure you have pre-prepared healthy quick meals or have access to fast healthy food to stop you making quick bad choices
- Drink lots of water – make sure you have a hydrating drink that you like and that is easy to reach
- Block out time in the day to exercise so that you can counter the negative physical effects of sitting still and hyper focusing for hours on end
- Reward yourself not for completing the task on its own, but for completing it safely with respect your health and well-being
Remember that while hyper focus is a superpower of ADHD, burnout is the kryptonite. Managing both is the true measure of success.