How to Actually Get Stuff Done as a Highly Sensitive Person

a highly sensitive person is productive

This past week, I was supposed to plop my butt in front of the computer to write, and I swear I totally did. I mean, you’re reading this piece right now, right?

But I was also supposed to “promote” some of my work. (Not my favorite activity as a highly sensitive person!) And for that part, I may have procrastinated 48 hours for an activity that takes roughly 15 minutes.

To be clear, I don’t think procrastination is specifically a highly sensitive person problem; it can happen to anyone. But highly sensitive people (HSPs) experience strong emotions and battle overwhelm daily — and those feelings can completely derail our productivity. And we need a way to get out of it that works for us.

Here are some of the challenges I’ve experienced as an HSP who deals with chronic procrastination, plus five tips I’ve learned that help tame it.

As a fear response, procrastination is about emotion, which is the kind of thing that hits HSPs hard.

Why Procrastination Is a Common Trap for Highly Sensitive People

I know that I’ve improved my self-discipline greatly over the past two years. But despite gorging myself on productivity techniques and self-improvement videos, I still find myself eagerly completing the tasks I enjoy (like writing and video editing), while making under-the-table deals with my brain to neglect all other commitments — namely, the ones that freak me out.

Whenever I finish a piece and it’s time to reach out to bloggers, my mind goes from “happy lamb in a meadow” to “scared sh*tless lion cub dodging rabid hyenas and goo-spewing geysers in the The Lion King.” For me, the hyenas are my fear of rejection; the geysers are the belief that I’m not good enough. These are, unfortunately, common feelings for many HSPs.

Like most highly sensitive people, I’m not unfamiliar with being rocked by the sea of emotion, whether it’s fear, sadness, or joy. I am as purpose-driven and fulfilment-seeking as I am sometimes crippled by decade-long insecurities and fears. HSPs, having a heightened sensitivity to both internal and external stimuli (especially emotions), can get overwhelmed easily. When we fret over not finishing everything on our to-do list, or do things we are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, fear can cause us to stress out.

And that’s the thing: procrastination itself is a classic fear response. It’s how we avoid the things we dread, fear, or find intimidating — or the things that just stress us out. And as a fear response, it’s about emotion, which is the kind of thing that hits HSPs hard.

So we jot down hearty to-do lists in the morning only to leave them completely ignored by lunch. And then, when nothing gets done, the lack of accountability makes us even more worried. The fear becomes a cycle.

But I believe it’s one that you can overcome.

4 Strategies to Stop Procrastinating

Recently I challenged myself to get things done despite fear while still making room for personal self-care practices to prevent burn out. To do this, I began incorporating the following four points into my mindset and routine.

1. Focus on the desire instead of the stress.

I learned this from a 45-minute long Tony Robbins recording on YouTube:

Where focus goes, energy flows.

If emotions are just “energy in motion,” as HSPs, we have an egregious amount of energy. We get weighed down by depressive thoughts, we are washed over with melancholy when reflecting on past painful experiences, and we get frazzled when there are too many things to do at once. When we focus on the negative, we become consumed by the negative. Likewise, when we focus on the positive, on gratitude, on love, we can ride the momentum of a much more pleasant wave of energy.

Instead of focusing on the pain of working out, for example, focus on the thought of the health level you want to achieve — the joy of feeling stronger and more mobile. Or, heck, the fun you’ll have inconspicuously showing off your six-pack while talking to that cutie at the gym — whatever it is that motivates you!

2. The fear is real, but it loses its power when we practice mindfulness.

Our ancestors passed fear down to us because it helped us avoid snakes and being abandoned by the tribe. But in a world where most of us don’t worry about our survival, fear holds us back: it keeps us from having that necessary conversation, or from taking that next step toward our dreams.

So take a deep breath. Focus on that breath and where you are in this very moment. Acknowledge the fear. It’s here to protect you. Now place it to the side, because you know that what triggers your fear — and thus your procrastination — won’t really hurt you. Let it go.

Repeat this as needed during your workday. Even a few seconds of mindfulness, whenever you notice the procrastination setting in, can create a huge change.

3. Reflect on how you actually work — and don’t shame yourself for that.

I admit I am a productivity junkie. I am guilty of making beautifully detailed to-do lists and beating myself up for not finishing them. I realized that many productivity techniques are pointless if they don’t reflect how I actually perform.

Perhaps the actual way you work right now is plugging away two intense hours on a side-project followed by hours of distraction. But, the next day is a Saturday — and yet you still put in six more productive hours because you’re in a “flow state.” That’s fine.

For many HSPs, a truly productive schedule is going to involve chunks of self-care time or some flexibility in when each piece gets done. It’s okay for your schedule and planner to reflect that.

And in a less flexible job? Well, in a world where sleeping less to work more is somehow the norm, HSPs sometimes feel bad for leaving work on-time or declining invitations in order to get the sleep and downtime they need. But it’s not worth it. As highly sensitive people, we do our best work when are fully recharged and as far from overstimulated as possible.

(Need some HSP-friendly self-care ideas? Here are 20 of them.)

So remember: it’s okay to make changes in your life and schedule to be less tired and more joyful. That will help, not hurt, your productivity.

4. Congratulate yourself on your small wins.

When it comes to learning new behaviors, we are mechanistically no more complicated than the Pavlovian dog. We repeat behaviors for which we are rewarded, and avoid behavior that leads to punishment.

And honestly, I find that quite liberating. It means it’s actually not that complicated to build new habits. And that’s important, because it’s habits — not goals — that bring you success.

Just as interest compounds, weight comes off, and snowballs grow larger the more you push them, all the big wonderful changes in your life start from taking small steps repeatedly over a length of time.

As you’re starting, congratulate yourself on all those small wins. Do so until those wins are no longer wins, but just a normal part of your average, incredible life.

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