Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person (male) in his home office looking stressed and tired while his young child climbs up onto his back to distract him

7 Ways to Make Your Home Office Work for You as a Highly Sensitive Person

Constantly distracted while you work from home? Here’s how to change that.

When stay-at-home orders first went into effect, no matter what I did, I couldn’t focus while working from home. 

I found everything to be a distraction, from my makeshift office lighting and temperature of the room to the ambient noise (since when did that clock tick so loud?) and my extreme sense of smell — I could still smell my lunch long after it had been eaten.

In addition, aside from having my own stress, I was also soaking up my family members’ stress and emotions, and I was experiencing decision fatigue, as well, having too many options for how to spend my time. 

What was going on?!

While others were loving working from home, I was struggling with creating the right home office environment and realized I was experiencing sensory overload and emotional flooding.

Once I came to this realization, I decided to use it to my advantage, starting with making my home office work for me — which can work for you, too. Taking some time to align our workspaces can have a big payoff in terms of our mental and emotional resilience, from the amount of natural light we are exposed to the visual clutter around us. In fact, I’ve made a whole business out of it — with Practical Sanctuary: Sensory Interior Design, I design spaces for highly sensitive people, a blending of my professional art career and healing practice.

But, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I discovered that everything I was feeling was completely valid. Psychologist Elaine Aron, who’s behind the HSP term, found that about 15 to 20 percent of the population are high in the sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) personality trait. It’s not a disorder; we HSPs just feel and process our surroundings — like mental and physical stimuli — more deeply than non-HSPs. (That explains my being ultra-aware of the ticking clock and still smelling my lunch hours later!) 

And the best part? You don’t have to remodel your home, fire your family, or spend a ton of money you don’t have on office furniture in order to radically improve your working and living space in a short time. Most of what you need is already available; it’s just a question of fitting the puzzle pieces together. 

Here are seven ways you can make working from home easier.

7 Ways to Make Your Home Office Work for You 

1. Follow the light

When half our days are taken up with Zoom meetings, conference calls, note-taking and brainstorming, there’s no reason to stay in the same place all day. Our circadian rhythms — part of the body’s internal clock — attune to natural light; when we don’t get enough of it, we can become depressed, fatigued, and be unable to sleep at night, and HSPs tend to need more sleep than others.

So analyze which parts of your home get the most light at various times of day, and set up mini-offices to take advantage of the best rays. I created a comfy corner by an East window for morning Zoom meetings, set up my main desk by a shaded window, and have a perch in the West-facing kitchen to soak up late afternoon sun.   

2. Eliminate visual clutter

The great thing about working from home is that we get total control over the aesthetics of our space. But the tough thing about it is the potential for distraction. 

Even more than most people, the sight of piles of unpaid bills, half-finished projects, kids’ toys, dirty dishes, bags of recycling, and overloaded bookshelves can exhaust HSPs and drain our energy. Before we know it, we can become mentally and emotionally flooded.

Taking half a day to declutter our space may seem like we’re avoiding “important work,” but it may very well skyrocket productivity for weeks afterward. If your office is tidy, but uninspiring, reorganizing your shelves, swapping out artwork, and curating your space so that every object is either necessary or beautiful can give you a daily dose of grounding and inspiration. 

3. Reduce ambient noise

Nothing breaks an HSP’s concentration more than ambient noise or surprise, startling noises, like the garbage truck or birds chirping non-stop. Oftentimes, ordinary sounds can quickly overwhelm HSPs. So since HSPs tend to be extra aware of stimuli, the more we can control that stimuli while working from home, the better.

If you have family members at home and no door on your office, invest in a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Also consider installing acoustic paneling in problem areas, which can mute sound from other rooms, neighbors, and street noise. 

These tactics have helped prevent me from getting distracted and, thus, I’m able to get more work done.

4. Clean your air

Highly sensitive people can be seriously affected by allergies, chemical off-gassing, and bad smells — and we need to concentrate on work — but a good air filter can drastically improve your air quality. A single-room HEPA filter not only filters allergens, germs, and dust, but it can also kill germs with UV light. 

If you are lucky enough to live in a temperate climate with good cross-ventilation, open your windows and use fans to improve air flow. (This, as well as the filter, can potentially reduce the chance of COVID-19 transmission, too.)

And remember, plants are the best air purifiers ever created and will not only help detoxify your home, but make it look nicer, too.

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5. Set up for movement

Taking stretching breaks and moving during your work day can improve your ability to focus, significantly elevate your mood, and reduce aches and pains from desk work. And if your space is cramped and cluttered, or you have to move furniture in order to stretch, you’re less likely to actually do it. 

Recently, a client came to me for help with ergonomics; he was working from a small bedroom which contained his office, wardrobe, filing cabinets, and multiple bookshelves. He said it was “impossible” to find enough space to stretch. 

With a tape measure, a digital space planner, and some ingenuity, we proved him wrong. He now has a dedicated yoga zone right next to his desk. Plus, yoga and meditation make for great breaks to help HSPs relax and get centered, something we tend to crave since we’re often so overstimulated by our environments. 

You may also want to consider using a yoga ball as a desk chair, or a standing desk adapter, both of which allow you to move up and down during the day. 

6. Evoke positive emotions

If your moods are influenced by scent — you know mine are, as well as many other HSPs’ — invest in a diffuser with energizing and calming aromatherapy blends, tailored according to your needs. Plus, aromatherapy has many benefits, like provoking feelings of calm.

Woody scents (sage, rosewood, cedar) can be grounding and focusing; herbal scents (mint, juniper) can be inspiring; and floral scents (lavender and vanilla) can be relaxing. You can even have designated aromas for each different space. 

You may have to go through some trial-and-error, though, as you don’t want the scent too distracting, which is common among HSPs.

7. Use decluttering time to brainstorm

Our brains work on solving problems when we are doing mundane tasks; the activity allows our subconscious minds to make connections while our conscious minds are occupied. If you’re struggling with a task, take a break and do some dishes, vacuum, sort, or otherwise organize your space. 

When you’re done, you may find that not only is your workspace more pleasant, but your highly sensitive brain has delivered some brilliant insights and made you more productive. Often, we need these time-outs to calm down since we HSPs are so used to overthinking.

For myself, working from home has been fantastic for my creativity, productivity, and business development. Over time, I’ve made a number of adaptations to my home office setup, which helps me manage my mood, energy levels, and ability to focus — all essential for my high sensitivity self. 

With a few tweaks to your home office space, you can achieve the same.

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