If you have a tendency to feel overwhelmed and procrastinate, it may be that you’re highly sensitive.
Part of building your confidence in yourself to accomplish the goals that you set for yourself is recognizing and accepting this as part of who you are. And developing ways to manage the parts that can be challenging when you work for yourself.
The term highly sensitive person comes from the work of Elaine Aron whose research estimates that about 15-20% of people are highly sensitive.
If you’re highly sensitive you’re hypersensitive to a variety of stimuli, ranging from pain to caffeine consumption (including the emotional states of others) and are therefore more prone to feel overwhelmed.
This then makes you feel anxious, stressed and results in difficulties staying on task and decreased productivity.
Knowing that you’re highly sensitive is important because while working for yourself will allow you to structure your days and environment in ways that work for you (hugely beneficial as working in an open plan office is very stressful), there are also things about the temperament which make it hard to be self-employed such as the intense fear of failure which makes it hard to put yourself and your ideas out into the world.
Have a look and see whether you have any of the traits listed below (you can take the test here):
- Need quiet time after a long day.
- Have a lower threshold for noise and get uncomfortable in loud environments.
- Avoid violent media.
- Are affected by other people’s moods.
- Experience things more intensely than other people.
- Think about things very deeply.
- Can take a long time to reach decisions (and get stuck in analysis paralysis).
- Struggle with criticism.
- A tendency towards perfectionism.
- Choke under pressure.
If you have scored as highly sensitive, I recommend that you do some more research, starting with Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.
I remember the relief I felt when I came across the concept and so many of my clients describe the same sense of, “I just thought that there was something wrong with me that I think so much/am so hard on myself/get overwhelmed so much/can’t spend long periods of time with people/struggle to follow through with my ideas etc.).
What a relief to know that you’re not crazy! And there’s lots that can be done to structure your life in a way that makes the best of your tendencies so that you can thrive.
In this post I want to share with you an idea that has helped me manage the overstimulation that leads to overwhelm and decreases my productivity.
Recognize that more is not necessarily better.
Many experts agree that our primary challenge these days is to manage our attention. You face so many distractions on a daily basis and as Daniel Goleman notes, even the devices you are using to create are designed to interrupt and distract you.
This is such an important idea for highly sensitive people. While reading and researching is an important part of the creative process (especially if your work involvement mental creativity), when and how you do this is important.
For me and many of my clients, if we start off by researching, we quickly get overwhelmed by all the ideas and information out there and then struggle to formulate our own thoughts (on an average day I can easily have 40+ tabs open before I recognize the rabbit hole I’m going down).
What I’ve found far more useful is to put my own ideas down first, whether I’m writing an article or creating a workshop, talk or program and then go to the research afterwards.
If you struggle with the expert kind of imposter syndrome, you’ll probably be drive to read and research and learn (just to clarify, part of the motivation for acquiring more knowledge will be from not feeling good enough, but another is also from the pure joy you experience from learning new things). And that’s fine, just be conscious about the impact the way you’re learning has on your ability to create.
2. Develop an excellent planning ritual.
If you don’t have a clear idea of your top priorities for the day it’s likely that you’ll end up being busy all doing doing things that have minimal impact.
And then feel frustrated at the end of the day and overwhelmed by everything that needs to get done tomorrow!
As the day progresses and you’re exposed to more stimulation (and your willpower gets depleted), it can become harder to make decisions about the best activities to focus your attention on.
I know that scheduling in time for planning sounds boring. Many of my clients tell me they don’t have the time! I can absolutely relate. When you’re overstretched you feel like you need to use every bit of available time going through your to-do list.
But please, please PLEASE hear this. When you’re ovestimulated your ability to effectively think and strategize is severely limited. You’re far less effective when you’re trying to get things done in an overwhelmed state.
Over 10 years ago psychiatrist Edward Hallowell warned of a massive increase in a phenomenon he called Attention Deficit Trait (you can read his Harvard Business Review article here). Caused by brain overload the symptoms are distractability, inner frenzy and impatience. Experiencing this brain overload makes it hard for you to stay organized, set priorities and manage time.
If you’re sensitive, you’re at increased risk because it takes less for you to become overstimulated.
I like the planning strategy recommended by Jason Selk and Tom Bartow in Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind to Optimize Performance at Work and in Life. They suggest asking yourself two questions as you plan for the next day.
“To set yourself on the right track, ask yourself those two critical questions: (1) What are thethree most important things I need to get done tomorrow? and (2) What is the single most important task I must get done? The questions work within your brain’s ‘channel capacity’ to
give you direction and prioritization in manageable doses. When you start your day, you know the three most important things you need to get done by the end of the day, and you know which of those three things is the big, glow-in-the-dark priority. You’ll be amazed at how much clearer your decision-making becomes—and how much more efficiently you’ll use your time—just by taking this simple organizational step.”
Then you can make sure that you do these priorities as early in the day as possible before you become too overstimulated.
This planning process doesn’t have to take long. Experiment with scheduling 5 minutes a day to planning for the next day and see how that works for you.
3. Give yourself lots of quiet time for processing.
I know that when I get too busy and don’t have enough quiet alone time in the day to process, I’m much more likely to wake up in the night with a mind that won’t settle. Time for walks in nature, meditation, or whatever forms of quiet time work for you is not a nice to have. It’s an absolute essential for you to manage overstimulation and follow through with your important goals.
If you struggle with meditation , try a guided form like Headspace. Many of my clients who have struggle to establish a regular meditation practice have found this to be a easy way to learn to meditate and experience the benefits associated with a regular meditation practice (decreased stress and anxiety, greater awareness of unhelpful thoughts, increased sense of well-being and many more).
You’ve heard this one before but it really, really matters: keep your workspace clear and organized. This is something that I have to keep working on as my work space gets clutters so quickly. I often don’t realize the impact until I’ve cleared the space and then realize how much more calm and focused I feel.
I hope these tips help. As always please do take the time to implement them. So often we acquire new information without ever putting in the effort to apply them and then wonder why we’re not seeing results.