Remedy for Hyperfocus

Try a Refreshing Palette Cleanser

Ever get engrossed in a perfectly innocent activity—such as looking up whether or not all sloths are three-toed—and then two hours later realize that reading endless reviews of toenail clippers is keeping you from getting started on that presentation that’s due tomorrow?

The term hyperfocus refers to being riveted in an activity; so riveted that prying yourself away becomes a real challenge. When hyperfocusing on shopping for toenail clippers, for instance, you might think to yourself, I should stop this and work on my presentation for tomorrow. You know you’re hyperfocusing when you have that thought and yet continue clicking on all the color variations of this toenail clipper: light blue, hot pink, rainbow (different hues for different toes!). A few minutes later (5, perhaps, or 45…) you have the same thought again. And again. And again.… One of my clients described the state of hyperfocus as analogous to being paralyzed.

Hyperfocusing is the body’s way of saying I’m busy! I’m not listening! Have you had the experience of mentally poking, nagging, even yelling at yourself to stop what you’re doing so you can start the next activity, all the while completely ignoring yourself?

Part of the problem is that researching toenail clippers is an easy way to avoid working on that presentation; in other words, hyperfocusing is a super-effective avoidance tactic. Even if there’s no presentation to work on, making the next click on the current web page is an effortless way to avoid doing virtually anything else, including the very process of deciding what to do next, which might involve those “executive function” thingies.

So let’s make interrupting hyperfocus the easiest, lowest-commitment thing to do, something that you have no motive to avoid. As soon as you become aware that you might be hyperfocusing, take a palette cleanser moment.

I was introduced to the concept of palette cleansers on my thirtieth birthday. I was given the gift of a gourmet dinner at a restaurant called the DePuy Canal House in High Falls, NY. It was, like, nine courses, including—I kid you not—both rabbit- and venison-based appetizers. Between the rabbit and deer, my wife and I were each brought a tiny dish of sorbet. I asked if this were some abstruse European custom of inserting a proto-dessert before the main course (after all, Europeans eat salad after the entrée—and the Canal House had adopted this un-American sequence). I was informed that the sorbet1 was a “palette cleanser”: it would, in effect, rinse off my taste buds, so that the flavor—pardon me: flavour—of rabbit would be completely gone from my mouth, and the venison would be a full, untainted gustatory experience unto itself.

This is either genius or unsupportably bourgeois, but in any case we can make good use of it as a way out of hyperfocus. We can put a tiny, flavor-neutralizing activity in between a hyperfocused activity and the next activity we might be avoiding. Here’s how.

Palette Cleanser Technique

  1. When you feel like poking yourself to stop hyperfocusing, perform a benign physical action that involves the use of at least three limbs—for example:
    • standing and patting your head (two legs + one arm)
    • hopping while touching your chest and back at the same time (one leg + two arms)
    • a split with jazz hands (all four limbs)
  2. Choose what you want to do next (and what you were just hyperfocusing on must be a valid option!)

Notes

Make the palette cleanser activity both easy to do and completely non-functional; i.e. it should require no special effort, and shouldn’t be useful for accomplishing anything. Thus, doing ten push-ups is great exercise, but a risky palette cleanser. Marching in place while touching your nose (left-right, left-right, halt!) is more like it. Going to your mailbox to retrieve the mail is too useful; instead, just walk to the other side of the room and knock the wall with your pinky-knuckle. All a good palette cleanser requires is that you unseat yourself and move your limbs.

Your choice of what to do next must be unconditional. You must be able to choose anything feasible. Flying to Saturn is out of the question, but doing laundry, writing a report, eating ice cream, making dinner, ordering pizza, and going right back to what you were just doing all have to be chooseable. If you rule out any option, then whatever part of you would vote (consciously or unconsciously) for that forbidden path will work to avoid the palette cleanser activity in the first place. The palette cleanser can have no fetters. To be a neutral activity it must come with no strings attached.

The client who described her hyperfocus as paralysis tried the stand-up-and-pat-head palette cleanser, and it worked. Most of the time she chose to start doing something else, often something productive. Sometimes she chose to return to the same thing she’d been doing, but found that she usually returned for a fixed period of time—say, another 15 minutes—and then stopped without needing a second standing pat on the head.

The palette cleanser technique works because it uses your body to interrupt itself. Hyperfocus is a human behavioral version of inertial motion,2 analogous to a runaway train: it can’t be stopped just by thinking about it; it needs physical brakes. Stopping the hyperfocused motion is the goal, even if only for a minute, even if you decide to go right back to it. The purpose and the benefit of the palette cleanser technique is not to get you to be productive, it’s to give you that vital space, that precious moment, in which you can choose freely. Stopping = Freedom.

A physical spoon of sorbet is a tasty, simple, and super-effective braking method.


  1. Wine is another commonly used palette cleanser. 

  2. The law of inertial motion: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” — Isaac Newton. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. (Emphasis added.) 

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