Finding the right level of stimulation for your work and relationships is one of life’s key challenges. Sometimes we procrastinate on tasks and check out from relationships because the overall stimulation level isn’t a good match for our preferences. Some situations are understimulating, causing us to feel bored and listless. Other situations are overstimulating, causing us to feel stressed or anxious. In the middle is the preferred zone where we feel attentively engaged, but this zone is different for each individual.
Fortunately, we don’t have to accept every situation as it comes. We can take steps to alter the default stimulation level to make it a better fit for us. This gives us more conscious control and flexibility.
When the Stimulation Is Too Low
When a situation seems too boring or tedious, you can amp up the stimulation. Try standing up instead of sitting down, for starters. Favour bright, slightly bluish lighting instead of dim or yellowish lighting. Play some stimulating music. Have a quad-shot of espresso. Burn a scented candle or some incense, or cut up some fresh lemons to stimulate your sense of smell.
For understimulating work tasks, start a timer, and challenge yourself to complete the task faster than you think is realistic. Turn it into a group project. Do it in a public place. Promise someone you’ll have it done by a certain time.
It may seem counter-intuitive to make a simple task more complicated, but this is a great solution for turning a dull task into a more interesting one.
Many people find that it’s easy to maintain the habit of daily exercise if they listen to music or audiobooks while exercising, which can make an otherwise repetitive physical action more engaging. This can make your life more stimulating overall as you go through dozens of extra books each year. Other people prefer to tackle very challenging forms of exercise to keep themselves fully engaged.
When the Stimulation Is Too High
If a situation feels overstimulating, do the opposite. Tone it down to make it more relaxing and less stressful. Listen to soft music or nature sounds, especially water sounds (rain, a stream, ocean waves, etc.), or stick with total silence. Favour soft, dim yellow lighting. Work in solitude or in a place that relaxes you, where you won’t be interrupted. Take a hot bath or meditate to calm yourself before you begin.
Some people can work very productively in social settings like busy coffee shops. Others love open office layouts with people buzzing around them, working only an arm’s length from their co-workers. But many people experience a major drop in productivity in such open layouts; they work best in quiet solitude, favouring private offices where they can close the door and work without interruption. For these people, the presence of other people is overstimulating and distracting.
It’s wise to experiment to find your sweet spot. You may also find that for certain tasks you prefer high-stimulation environments, while for different tasks you may prefer the opposite.
Adapting to Your Changing Preferences
Our desired stimulation levels aren’t constant; they change over time. These changes include day-to-day fluctuations as well as long-term shifts based on our personal growth trajectory. The optimal level of stimulation for you today may need adjusting in a few years.
If you dislike a particular type of environment or situation, be careful not to misdiagnose your preferences by assuming you’re on one end of the spectrum when the opposite may be true. For example, some people find nightclubs to be overstimulating and stressful. Other people find such places understimulating and boring.
The benefit of becoming aware of your preferences is that you can do a better job of keeping yourself in the sweet spot of stimulation when you desire to be. This can help you increase your productivity by making your work more engaging, improve your relationships by attracting more compatible partners and upgrade the overall enjoyment of your life by creating stronger positive memories.
How much input do you like to experience on a typical day? Do you enjoy challenging problems, or do you prefer mental ease?
What type of mental work do you find most engaging? Which tasks bore you? Which ones make you feel tense or anxious?
Have you ever been in your sweet spot of mental engagement? What did that feel like? How would you recreate that experience today?
My brain seems to be a stimulation addict. It prefers lots of fresh input and challenging tasks to perform each day. A pleasing day for me includes 1-2 hours of reading, some intellectual discussion and creative work like writing. I really dislike having too many mundane tasks on my to-do list, so when that happens, I have to remind myself to make them more stimulating. For instance, I might use a timer and push myself to do work that should take 2 hours in less than 90 minutes.
If I go too many days without feeding my mind new ideas and new challenges, I start feeling mentally restless, checked out, lazy and even mildly depressed. My mind craves higher levels of stimulation and activity than I’m giving it. I don’t function well without high levels of mental stimulation.
I absolutely love learning new skills. My mind seems to feel most engaged when I have the opportunity to be a beginner, since that’s when I learn the fastest. Sometimes I’ll pick a random new skill and learn it for a while because it keeps me in the sweet spot of stimulation. Earlier this year I bought a copy of Final Cut Pro and taught myself to do video editing over the course of several weeks. I felt very engaged and energized by the challenge of it.
When I listen to audiobooks, I normally play them at 2-3x normal speed, and often while doing physical tasks. Otherwise I feel the material is coming too slowly for my mind to be fully engaged.
Does your work usually keep you in your sweet zone of stimulation? Or do you find it too boring or too stressful?
If you often distract yourself with excessive social media, email or web surfing, it may be because your other tasks aren’t well-suited to your optimal zone of stimulation. You may be avoiding excess stress, or you may be trying to stimulate yourself with other activities to avoid boredom. I’ve noticed that when I don’t deliberately include enough mental stimulation in my days, I’ll catch myself browsing online news or web surfing, just to find something fresh and new that engages my mind.
If you’ve been frequently operating outside your ideal zone for peak mental engagement, make some conscious changes. If your mind is being understimulated, devote more time to high-engagement activities. Take music lessons. Challenge yourself to go through at least one audiobook per week, especially on new subjects that will make you think.
If you’re feeling overstimulated, anxious or burnt out from too much stress, do the opposite. Take more time for mental relaxation. Stop working earlier. Take at least one full day off each week when you don’t allow yourself to do any mentally challenging work; don’t even check email. Disengage from some activities. Create more quiet space in your life.
Using Stimulation to Overcome Procrastination
If you’ve been procrastinating on a certain type of task, is it possible you’ve been using the wrong strategy to get yourself to do it? Maybe you’ve been thinking that the task was stressful when you actually found it boring.
Many students put off doing assignments to the last minute, especially large assignments like writing papers or doing class projects. Some assume that they procrastinate because the project is too stressful, so they try to relax and focus on it. But that doesn’t work. Doing the task early wouldn’t actually be too stressful; it would more likely be too boring, especially if the assignment isn’t very interesting.
But then when the deadline gets closer, perhaps the night before it’s due, the student gets into action mode and ploughs through a tremendous amount of work quickly and efficiently. The added stress of the deadline makes the task more interesting and engaging. It’s no longer so boring.
If you notice that you’re able to get work done when the pressure is greater, you can use this to your advantage to avoid procrastination and finish tasks earlier. Instead of trying to relax and focus, try to amp up the stimulation level of the task. Work on it in a busy environment. Listen to your favourite music. Stand up and move around a lot.
When I design a new three-day workshop, I find the work mildly stimulating; but to get to my ideal stimulation levels, I need to amp up the energy. Designing on paper is too boring and will put me to sleep.
So here’s what I do to design a workshop segment: I select a subtopic that I need to develop, and I imagine being on stage and having to spontaneously present the material to the audience with no preparation whatsoever. Then I spend 15-30 minutes animatedly walking around my house and presenting the material off the top of my head, as if I’m doing it live. When I feel a good flow of inspired ideas coming through me and it feels like I’m locked onto the right type of energy I want to convey, I’ll hop onto my laptop and type up the ideas that flowed through me. Later I’ll edit them to add more form and structure.
Using this highly engaging approach, I can design all the content for a three-day workshop in about one week. It used to take me a full month using a less stimulating pen-and-paper approach.
Other people may get better results by doing the exact opposite. If you find certain work too stressful or frustrating or overly challenging, try bringing the stimulation level down, and see how that affects you.
The golden rule is to experiment. If reducing the level of stimulation doesn’t work, try increasing it. Try raising some types of stimulation while reducing others; you may be more sensitive to certain forms. Especially experiment with sound levels, lighting and the way you use your body to engage with the task.