‘Single-Tasking’ Is the Most Important Change an HSP Can Make at Work

A highly sensitive person single-tasking at work

As a freelancer, I have a line on my resume that’s designed to scare away clients I have no interest in working with: “Dedicated single-tasker.” You see, my resume is not a job catcher. It’s an honest representation of who I am and what I can provide for clients who have a valuable work experience to offer me. 

But isn’t multitasking where it’s at nowadays? It seems like every job description asks for that skill. We’re advised that, in order to get ahead in our careers, we need to be quick to interrupt tasks to reply to emails, monitor social media, or switch gears in other ways. This means interrupting your creative juices several times throughout the day, which for highly sensitive people can feel especially draining. And while there may be something to gain in terms of followers, teamwork, or communication, it comes at a great cost to our ability to focus deeply and produce meaningful work — the kind of work that leads to long-term success and happiness.

Expectations around multitasking have only grown with the COVID-19 crisis, with many people working from home — often without a sense of structure and stability about their days. Perhaps your now-homeschooled children threaten to pop into important video conferences, or you lack the space and equipment to do your work effectively at home. Then there are the urgent and constantly changing deadlines, pressuring you to remain informed at all times. For many of us, these work-related distractions are only the start — often, we’re dealing with them on top of the more personal effects of the pandemic. 

Now more than ever, it is crucial to learn how to focus and do deep work — which will create the space you need in your life to breathe. And, more than that, it will help you use your strengths as a highly sensitive person to be the effective, capable person the world needs right now.  

Why ‘Single-Tasking’ Is so Good for HSPs 

HSPs have an immense potential for creative excellence, but one of the biggest hurdles to producing that level of work is our sensitivity to stimulation and the frustration that comes with distraction and interruption. This can disrupt the very delicate processes of deep thinking and creative expression. 

Sophie Leroy, an associate professor at the University of Washington, writes about this in her research on what she calls attention residue. She explains that every time you switch from one task to another, a “residue” of your attention stays with the previous task for a while — whether you’re aware of it or not. Do this often enough, and you find yourself producing a low-quality, distracted work and taking more time to complete it. 

In a world where our devices are designed to control us and our clients are conditioned to expect a reply within minutes (if not seconds!), establishing boundaries and creating a healthy work environment — one that limits distractions — can help foster the deep creativity and focus that HSPs need. 

Creating Boundaries Around Work

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport explains how to keep shallow work from interrupting deep focus. For starters, he encourages establishing a clearly defined end to your workday. “If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to email or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline,” Newport says, “you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration.” 

Even short dives into your work world — a quick reply to an email or a 20-minute review of one of your pressing projects — can signal to your brain that you’re in work mode, preventing the deep relaxation necessary to restore your mind for the next day. That, in turn, makes it harder to focus deeply during work time itself.

For me, establishing a strict end to my workday was just the first step. I went on to cultivate a “single-task” work environment for myself, which has helped me develop a healthier work-life balance. Here are several ways I did that — and the tools I used. You may need to adapt these suggestions to fit your specific job (and the expectations of your boss!), but I believe they can work for many different jobs.

5 Ways to Create Your ‘Single-Tasking’ Work Life   

1. Set a schedule — for work and rest

Social media can be useful for making connections, and email is essential for most businesses today. Schedule time in the margins of your day to deal with that stuff, but then schedule time to be entirely unavailable to anything else but your most focused work. And then, of course, schedule a time to be finished with all work for the day, as Newport suggested — especially if you’re currently working from home and have less structure to your day.

2. Automate the shallow work (yes, it’s possible!)

For me, my shallow work consists of schedule talk, which can go on endlessly. “Are you available to proofread a job due tomorrow?” “Sure. How many pages, and what time will you need it back?” “7:00.” “A.M. or P.M.?” You get the idea.  

And because it’s important not to miss expedite requests, this back-and-forth could all be happening while I’m preparing breakfast for my family or hanging out with my daughters. Find ways to make technology work for you. I decided to get a scheduling app called Calendly. My clients can now schedule themselves into my week based on my availability, answering the questions that prompt them when they go to schedule it.

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3. Communicate your boundaries clearly

Actions communicate — make sure that your actions communicate the right message. By scheduling time away from work, I communicate to my family that they are important to me. Even if you live on your own, taking time away from work communicates to yourself that you deserve to rest. 

But what does it communicate to your clients or boss if you are suddenly unavailable for several hours at a time when they are used to an immediate reply from you? 

If the nature of your work relies on constant communication, consider setting up an autoresponder that provides relevant information. Before I used a scheduler, I’d set up an autoresponder that detailed my availability for the week and gave my clients permission to send any work they had that worked with my availability.

It’s also important to be consistent about when you are willing to communicate about work. I generally shut everything down at the same time every day, and I do not do any work on Sundays at all. My clients know when they can reach me, and if it’s important, they’ll make sure to get in touch before I shut down for the night.

4. Use tools to minimize distractions

I enjoy working with a simple pen and paper, but it’s quite cumbersome to do that in today’s world. In searching for something that mimics the analog feel of pen and paper, I came across the reMarkable tablet, a minimalist paper-like tablet which allows me to read, write, and transfer documents to my laptop. 

Because of the paper-like screen, I can take my work outside in the sunshine and fly through work while my kids run around having fun. I’ve been able to shift 85% of my work to this device, and just in the first month using it, I made more money, worked less hours, and was, in general, a more focused and happy person than in previous seasons as a freelancer. Of course, my “deep work” is going to look different from those who are not responsible for a young family. 

Find the tools that work best for you, preferably ones that, by their nature, offer minimal functionality. Get creative and see if there’s a part of your workflow you can shift away from your distracting devices and onto something more with a more analog feel.

5. Use technology to control technology 

When you do need to use those devices that have built-in notification systems and are specifically designed to pull us in several directions at once, I suggest utilizing apps and settings that help control and limit distractions. I’ve found Boomerang (which I use to keep emails out of my inbox until I’m ready for them) and If This Then That (which I use to manipulate notifications so that I only see the important ones at the right time) really helpful. And, of course, the “Do Not Disturb” function in most device settings is great. If you find you need a little more help keeping away from distraction, there are several apps that literally lock you out of distracting websites and devices altogether.

Being a “single-task” worker requires a mindset shift. Making these adjustments can be beneficial across the board, but as an HSP, fostering a focused environment for deep work is a real game changer — because deep processing is what we do best.

No matter your work situation during the pandemic, single-tasking can help you do more than just “survive” this chaotic and uncertain time with your mental health intact. If you can master the practice of doing deep work now, you’re actually equipping yourself to thrive as a more focused, creative, and productive person when you return to business as usual. 

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