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October 24, 2002

Hyper Focus

We recently had someone tell us that Kelly possesses 'intense focus'. In the course of the conversation, the terms 'hyper-focused' and 'it's like I wasn't there' also came up. I think I know where she gets this trait, and I hope I can help her learn to balance it so that she actually benefits from it more than it harms her.

I can't honestly say that I've always been this way, but for quite a long time, as long as I can remember, I've been prone to 'hyper-focus' myself. This has benefits and disadvantages. On the benefit side, when I'm working through a problem (how to trim 80% of the time off a flabby algorithm, for instance), I tend to worry over the problem like a dog with a bone. When I wake up in the morning my first thought is what new angle of attack to take. Oftentimes, that new approach springs from dreams, so I even work on it when asleep.

The downside of this trait is that I don't always know when to let go. More nights than I can count have passed with me futilely beating my head against a wall, too tired to make new inroads, too stubborn to give up and go to bed. When I finally am overwhelmed by sleep, the next morning often sees me filled with fresh ideas--ideas which would probably have come even if I'd gone to bed earlier.

This happened recently when I replaced my broken Palm Pilot, and installed the desktop software on the kitchen computer. It stopped responding to the keyboard or mouse, and of course using a computer in that state is rather difficult. I eventually figured out that the Hotsync drivers were auto-starting and sitting on the USB port that the keyboard was hanging off of. A little more investigation showed that I could plug a mouse into one of the ports at the back of the box and get enough control back to shut off the autostart features of Hotsync. By the time I found this out, it was around 12:30am. I could have gone to bed and figured it out overnight subconsciously, or at least negotiated with Jean to see if I could leave the computer in a broken state for that day, but my hyperfocus didn't let me.

Yesterday I was at Fry's ogling the Macs when a salesman approached and asked if I ran OS X (he'd spied the copy of Diablo II in my hand and wanted to 'help' me upgrade to the OS X version, which only cost a little bit more). I told him I ran it on my laptop occasionally, but the software I'd like to buy for it (Fallout 2) only ran on 10.1.4 or higher (I was running 10.0.4). And I had woefully missed out on the free upgrade discs when they were making the rounds. So this very nice sales person says "I'm pretty sure I have a few of those in back."

"Really?" I say, my ears pricking up. "How much would you want for one?"

"One cent." Turns out they were free to Fry's from Apple, and they're just lying in the back, so he goes and gets me one. And that's how I spent yesterday evening, only I quit at 11:30pm instead of the next morning. The machine booted fine, but the login screen was black, so it was kind of hard to type anything or click on anything. This morning I did a clean install, grabbed the updaters from Apple, and I'm now running Mac OS X 10.1.5 on my laptop. Guess who's going to Fry's on the way home?

But the point is, that I still suffer from hyperfocus to my detriment, as well as benefitting from it. However, I don't do this sort of thing nearly as often as I used to. Time was, when in grad school for instance, when this sort of run-till-you-drop syndrome was the common case. Now I regularly ask myself "can I get this done better if I sleep on it?" I just slip up occasionally, is all...

Posted by dpwakefield at October 24, 2002 04:48 PM