Sensitivity

Working as an HSP/HSS

HSPs are often driven by a need to find ‘meaningful’ work, something that seems to connect with our soul purpose. All other kinds of work seem to be just… passing time. Chasing our own tails. Work is really such a huge topic for me, that I’ve basically been obsessing over it for like, a third of my life so far. But this post isn’t exactly about work itself. Instead, it’s the corollary to work: disciplining myself to actually get down to doing the work.

Having sat in offices, playing the part of dutiful employee and all, a part of me is still trying to shake off the conditioning that work = sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day, 6 of which are spent surfing Facebook, texting someone, finding excuses to go out for a snack/drink/walk (without alerting the boss, in case they start muttering those sweeping ‘Gen Y’ or ‘Millenial’ epithets), leaving only about two hours that can be considered productive in any way at all. (…What? You don’t do this? Okay, then.) And then wait with bated breath for that moment when magically, the paycheck at the end of the month appears in your bank account. Woohoo! 

Years of flirting with this mode of working, and I know I’m definitely not the only one who finds it such a struggle.

My particular struggle: while I like having some kind of loose routine to structure my days around, the prospect of day after day of this predictable grind, fixed and immutable, stretching on ahead of me, that doesn’t actually inspire me or enable me to do my best… I’m basically maudlin at the thought.

So I’m discarding this way of working for now. 

Instead of fighting myself (this has been a watershed year, I tell you) I’ve just been going along with my natural inclinations to create the kind of work day that works for me, instead of something that I have to struggle against. (What a revelation!) Part of this new-found motivation was just sheer exhaustion from trying to fit into a professional world designed for and by non-HSPs (and possibly non-HSS, too). Plus boredom and discomfort and really…I just wanted to feel like I have a reason to go on (melodramatic, but work is really important to me, have I mentioned that already?). Having ownership over this process gives me a deep sense of empowerment and motivation.

So what are these natural inclinations? In brief, when it comes to working as an HSP (highly sensitive person) /HSS (high sensation seeker), I can get easily overstimulated – yet also easily bored.

Thus controlling (as far as possible) the level of stimulation is essential. The level of stimulation simply refers to the amount of stimulus I’m receiving from the environment, as well as from my physical self: noise, light, people, activities, temperature, level of personal comfort (sleep, hunger etc…), factors that I toggle in various permutations in order to help me to focus and perform well.

So to keep me humming along happily and to maintain a level of productivity when I need it, I require a level of optimal stimulation. This is where it gets tricky – because this level of optimal stimulation is really just a narrow band before it tips over onto either side… too slow, too quiet? Snoozeville. Too much, too soon? Woah, paralysis.

Going from one extreme to another can take place within the span of minutes to hours. Overstimulation can last for days. Starting at a new job? Expect sleeplessness – for at least 3 nights till the novelty of the change wears off. Yes, it’s as exhausting as it sounds!

I’ve learnt that it’s about finely tuning this see-saw and correcting it before it tips too far onto either side. This actually requires quite a high level of self awareness that I’ve had to develop: the ability to scan myself for cues as to what would work best for me on that day. As a result, no two days are the same. So far, most days I do well at this. Other days I don’t even try, because I think it’s equally important to just BE without trying to corral myself and my energies just to be ‘productive’. But on the days that I do, I’ve developed some guiding principles.

First and most importantly,

IT DOESN’T MATTER WHEN, WHERE OR HOW YOU DO IT, AS LONG AS YOU GET IT DONE BEST AS YOU CAN

In other words, giving myself the permission to do whatever that seems to work, without judgement, and respecting my limitations as much as I appreciate my strengths.

THAT SAID, SET EXPECTATIONS

I think it’s important to clue clients/stakeholders in on when you I can get something done by, so everyone’s on the same page. Though setting realistic expectations is still a thing I have to work on, without feeling guilt about taking the time that I need to take. I save myself lots of undue stress just by telling someone when they can expect a piece of work from me. I find that once the trust is built, there’s hardly any more need for explanations.

THERE SEEMS TO BE A PRIME TIME

My magical hour so far seems to be around 5pm. When the sun is just beginning to set, I suddenly perk up and become energized. I have no idea why this is so – well, I do have one theory: is that as sunlight decreases, I become optimally stimulated (noontime sun: way too bright, can’t concentrate).

DROPPING THE NEED TO CONFORM/GUILT

At first, I’ve also had to drop a certain sense of guilt and anxiety about not working during ‘typical’ work hours. I was never exposed to a workable model of an alternative to the 9-5, so the possibility of even designing a work day for myself even just 3 years back was really laughable and anxiety-inducing to me. This was especially so when I was in Singapore and most of my friends had day jobs – and I couldn’t shake the sense that everyone apart from me was working, thus making me some kind of a… slacker? (Yup, being judgmental about myself was definitely a big thing.) I’ve also ditched the weekend/weekday divide – I love doing things when other people aren’t because there are just simply fewer people around – shopping on weekdays, for example.

WHAT DO I NEED TO ACCOMPLISH TODAY?

Differentiating between the kind of tasks I have ahead of me, and making decisions based on what environment/conditions would allow me to best accomplish these tasks was also a revelation to me. Because of the nature of what I do, I have to perform tasks that are varied and activates different parts of my brain. Say, creative brainstorming and strategy, vs research, or writing a blog post, searching for an image, interviewing someone, or simply ‘housekeeping’ tasks. All of these require different frames of mind and different environments to facilitate the best results – so I often structure my day and what’s going to happen based on what I need to get done for the day.

CAFFEINE OR NO CAFFEINE?

Sadly, I’ve become even more sensitive to caffeine over time. I get jumpy and cranky now even after half a cup of coffee. So while just a little can help me to focus, even a little too much can get me too wired up to do my work in a calm, measured way. So now I stick to tea – the caffeine in tea, tannin, seems to be much gentler but still gives me a teensy jolt that’s just enough to get me going. Sometimes, when I need a big jolt to get myself going – I turn to music. Upbeat, dancey music. Bonus: no calories!

THE FLOW

I can usually sense the flow of things or the energies of the day, and most days, I’m able to tap into its rhythm. On some days, I just know nothing’s going to get done. My mood is wrong, something feels off – and forcing it just isn’t going to work. So when I can, I give myself the license to just check out. I work on tasks that don’t require much creativity – admin tasks, running errands, chores. Things like brainstorming or planning? Better luck tomorrow!

THE TOUGHEST PART?

Recognizing where I am on the stimulation scale, and moving past the inertia in order to do something for myself to achieve optimal stimulation – I would say that’s the biggest challenge I have as an HSS/HSP. That, and combining it with objective reality – practical things that still need to get done, whether I feel like it or not. It’s still a constant process to figure out what works best on any given day. But as I mentioned, having a sense of the flow helps so much. I suspect I’ll have to keep readjusting along the way, probably for my entire life as things change, as they inevitably do. Here’s to riding this seesaw! Life is definitely never too boring (…for long) for me.

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