Overstimulation can derail productivity for HSPs — but these HSP-specific work habits will set you up for success.
As highly sensitive people (HSPs), it can be hard for us to filter out distractions — especially when we’re in environments with a lot of stimuli. Many factors vie for our attention at the same time, which can make us more overstimulated than usual and make it difficult to focus. That said, work and productivity can come as challenges.
I’ve struggled with concentration for much of my life. It’s only been in more recent years that I’ve finally figured out the habits that have worked best for me and my HSP brain. Here’s how I’ve learned to work — and be productive — as a highly sensitive person.
7 Work and Productivity Tips for HSPs
1. Make the items on your to-do list as specific as possible — specificity is your friend.
When studying for my medical Spanish certification test a couple years ago, some of my specific to-do list items were: “Write 10 practice sentences using Spanish medical terminology”; “Record one interpretation”; “Make a list of any words you don’t know, then look up definitions.”
These proved significantly more effective than more generic and nondescript former list items, such as “Work on Spanish” (On what aspect, specifically?); “Write” (Write how much? Write what?); or “Edit psych entry” (What will you be specifically looking out for when you edit?).
As I came to find out, specificity doesn’t have to be oppressive; you can always move from one task to another if you find yourself stuck — even though single-tasking works very well for HSPs. And, by providing a concrete measure, specificity even makes it easier to do this. You’re less likely to linger with a vague feeling of discontent (during which you may incessantly ask yourself “Did I do enough?”)
Despite my having once considered the ritual of to-do listing to be too tedious and regimented, after repeating it a few times, I felt like it was helping — and even empowering — me. Since HSPs may be more prone to distraction and overwhelm than your average person, specific to-do lists are something that can help reduce that overwhelm and give us a sense of control.
Every time you start getting too stuck in your head, it’s harder to feel lost or adrift when you know there’s a life raft — in the form of a physical plan — waiting to drag you out.
2. Break your to-do list into smaller tasks and complete a little at a time.
This especially applies to work you’ve been putting off or tasks that are not inherently enjoyable. HSPs are particularly prone to overwhelm when confronted by large tasks. When I tell myself I have to finish a big project in one sitting, the document will remain empty. Time anxiety is real! And my mind enters paralysis. If I focus on smaller segments, however, the larger project (an essay, in this case), gradually and incrementally writes itself.
Taking breaks from big assignments to restore some of your cognitive juices — without abandoning them entirely — can be extraordinarily beneficial. Sometimes, doing “nothing” is the best “something.”
3. Temporarily postpone, or abandon, tasks that aren’t time-sensitive.
Often why I linger on a task, it’s because I’ll start to think thoughts like, “This sounds bad,” “I’m not happy with how that turned out,” or “I could have done a lot better.” I carry these thoughts with me into the next task, which affects my performance on that one, too — and so on. (We HSPs tend to be very hard on ourselves!) This chain reaction then culminates in a feeling of mediocrity or a nagging sense of having fallen short of my full potential.
Instead, what if we said, “Maybe I didn’t do my best (on that), but that’s okay — it’s fine to move on to another task, and maybe tomorrow when I come back to the original task, the energy will flow better.” After all, once HSPs get into a “flow state,” it’s hard to get us out of it!
Think of it like making a clean cut. The peaceful and tidy detachment from the task (and by extension, the negative feelings it brings) will allow you to retain full energy to embark on the next one. By the end of the day, you’ll feel more accomplished — even after those initial self-doubting thoughts threatened to derail you.
4. Choose your environment carefully, and modify it when you can.
Surroundings can have a huge effect not just on your overall mood, but also on productivity. This is especially true for HSPs — environmental psychology really affects us.
For example, sound is a big trigger for me, and often is for other highly sensitive people, as well. No matter how calming the physical space I’m in, noise level above my preferred threshold interferes with my ability to engage with my work. I also struggle more in brightly-lit or cluttered places, and feel claustrophobic when facing (or seated directly next to) a wall.
Some people’s preferences also vary depending on the task they’re working on. When I want to be creative and expand my thinking, a little background noise is tolerable (and even conducive) to generativity. But when I’m focused on a very specific or linear problem, I need complete silence.
So hone in on the environmental factors that help you to feel most comfortable and effective as an HSP. Then, if possible, make it a point to return to (or recreate) those places as often as you can.
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5. Give yourself incentives and rewards — but with boundaries.
After putting in three hours of studying for my medical interpreting test, I worked out at the gym for an hour. Afterwards, I indulged in lunch at one of my favorite spots, Bissap Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant in downtown Oakland. HSPs feel things so deeply, including through eating and other sensory experiences — they can bring forth a strong rush of positivity.
I do recommend instilling balance into your rewards, though — and to allocate them mindfully. Positive reinforcement can (and should) take a different, healthier form than mindless indulgence. In other words, don’t choose prizes that might derail you. Instead, select them carefully so that they provide motivation to repeat the desired behavior in the future.
6. Work when you can give it your full attention.
Back when I worked as a rideshare driver, I switched locations frequently, spending a lot of time in my car and many hours on the move. Wanting to still make progress on my blogging and writing goals, while driving, I would record voice memos that I planned to later transcribe into blog entries. Basically, I tried to “write” and drive at the same time.
Sometimes the circumstances would align — for instance, you can hear me honking at a Mercedes that changed into my lane without signaling, as I “write” about the underlying issues that defensiveness in relationships might point to. Though I thought I was accomplishing two tasks at once — commuting while also working toward my writing goals — I ended up with content that sounded scattered and all over the place. It was not thoughtful and it did not flow.
Reading it after converting it to written form gave me a headache. I realized that, more than having made progress on writing goals, I’d merely given myself a greater number of messes to clean up. Voice memos work great for concrete and logistical reminders, I decided, but I needed to actually write when I made the time to sit down and do so.
So now when I write, I make sure I am in a quiet place, sitting down, and actually writing (as opposed to talking into a phone while my mind half-focuses on another task — remember what I said about single-tasking above?). I notice a much higher quality in content and sentence structure when I follow this routine. I believe that the highest quality work often comes when you give your subject your full attention. As HSPs, we are passionate, but can easily become derailed or sidetracked when we don’t mindfully set aside time for specific goals.
7. Consider freelancing — but be mindful of the benefits of staying in one place and not over-planning your day.
Toward the end of college, I’d always just assumed I’d have to work a standard 9-to-5 job in an office. Driving for a rideshare service showed me there were alternative options, eventually paving the way for me to make more money and use some of the skills I’d learned in college via becoming a medical interpreter.
Overall, freelancing allows me to work in shorter bursts, which is perfect for my HSP temperament. With my freelancer schedule, I have breaks in between assignments, during which I can recharge and regroup. And the emotional and cognitive space freed up by this lifestyle has allowed me to be more present with each activity.
Not having a boss constantly monitoring my output gives me necessary breathing room, which is good for my mental health. I like getting to set my own schedule, and revel in the knowledge that I’m entirely in charge, on call to no one but myself.
Keep in mind, though, that frequently changing locations can have a negative impact on achieving flow states. When I taught English as a freelancer in Uruguay, the fact that the classes were each no longer than an hour, and spaced out throughout the day, made it harder to enter a state of unbroken focus with my work. Staying in one place is much more conducive to this, however.
So see what works best for you, so you can be as productive as can be as an HSP!
And I’d love to know, my fellow HSPs, what would you add to the list above? Feel free to comment below!
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