How do you manage the overstimulation caused by a big project? Stretching yourself to realize a vision—or cope with a pressing emergency– is bound to leave you overwhelmed at times, especially if you are built sensitive. But with good strategies in place, you can handle the inevitable moments of overarousal so they don’t derail you.
Our dahlias are blooming early this year. I’m reminded why I chose a dahlia as the Sustainably Sensitive logo: dahlias are profusely creative. One plant might produce several dozen spectacular flowers before the first frost comes in October. On the other hand, this profusion of beauty does not happen by accident. It requires sweat equity. We dig up, wash, trim, and store the tubers in the fall, then start, transplant, and stake the plants in the spring.
All this trouble means you have to really want to grow dahlias. So it’s not surprising that dahlia growers are passionate about their craft. At my first Rochester Dahlia Society meeting I heard two perfectly nice men bellowing at each other. Their dispute? The relative merits of vermiculite versus wood shavings as a winter storage medium for dahlia tubers.
Once I stopped laughing, I felt inspired by this display of passion. Because let’s face it: keeping your sensitive body and mind in top form is a lot like growing dahlias. You have to work at it. On the one hand, you know how wonderful it feels to achieve that high-functioning state. But on the other, you also know you’ll have to get up and do it again tomorrow. And the next day. So some passion for the task comes in handy. This is even more true when you take on a massive project and the fertilizer really hits the fan.
With projects, “big” = “overstimulating”
I embarked on an unexpected and massive project when I decided a year ago to change the name of Luminos Listening to Sustainably Sensitive. In the process of re-designing the website, I wrote, re-wrote, or edited nearly 100,000 words. I exchanged more than 1500 emails with my web designer. And I mastered a laundry list of new technical skills. On top of my usual work and home obligations, this was a major undertaking.
As you can imagine, I got overstimulated. Constantly. I’m sure you, too, have taken on this kind of massive project, whether by choice or out of necessity. You know how starting a new job, giving birth, moving getting married (or divorced), writing a book, or dealing with a serious health challenge can push you to your limits.
Here are four strategies I used to keep my stimulation level under control while completing a project that required my best effort week in and week out for a year.
1—Know your own pace
When you have a great deal to accomplish, it’s tempting to put your head down and push through. But you may have discovered, as I did, that this is counterproductive. I found that if I exceeded a certain key level of overstimulation, I’d be “gone” for the day. On the other hand, if I stopped just short of that point and took a break, I could recover a high level of calm and focus. So I learned to use a timer to enforce regular breaks.
I also took the counterintuitive step of lengthening my lunch break to 90 minutes. This gave me time for half an hour of restorative rest. The effect on my afternoon productivity and alertness has been striking. I now get significantly more done in less time.
And I learned to be cautious about forcing the pace of the work. I paid closer attention to any hesitation I’d feel when setting time goals. Often, I’d discover I was right to be hesitant. I was promising to complete a task by some certain time, without having any idea how long it would take. So I learned to create observation-based goals. I’d time myself, then extrapolate. For example, when I had to individually adjust the pixel ratio for 100 blog images, I timed myself doing ten images. Then I budgeted that much time per day for ten days. I even had fun trying to beat my fastest time.
2—Trust the unfolding of your project
I know intellectually that change may be happening even when you can’t see it. But working on this massive website project, I repeatedly forgot this truth. I’d stress myself when my logic-driven next steps did not align what the project itself wanted. For example, I’d plan to finish page X today, only to find pages A, B, and C downloading themselves from my brain instead. Then, while stressing over not having finished page X, I’d miraculously stumble upon some piece of information that made page X much easier to write.
As I struggled to align myself with this flow rather than fighting it, I was surprised to discover the biggest barrier: my self-critical attitude. I realized I needed to take a kinder attitude towards myself. It helped to concentrate on discerning the difference between procrastination, which is problematic, and incubation, which is essential. Whenever I remembered to be nicer to myself, my level of stress and overstimulation would drop dramatically.
3—Get help and support that works for you
By definition, a massive project pushes you. My biggest challenge in this project was the technical learning curve. I knew from experience that my brain quickly overloads in the face of terms like slugs, tags, padding, and pixels. So I deliberately sought out a team of website-development colleagues who would be patient, let me ask questions, and teach me what I didn’t know. As a result, I was able to keep my overstimulation manageably low despite a constant stream of head-exploding technical information.
Whatever your project is, ask yourself what kind of support you’d most love to have. Remind yourself it’s OK to want what you want, and seek that out. You need people with the right technical expertise, of course. But you also need support people who have your back and are kind and supportive when the fertilizer hits the fan.
4—Cultivate enough inner quiet to hear yourself
Your big project will inevitably requires your “top-shelf” energy and emotional presence. So you will need, as I did, a solid base of inner calm and silence. In addition to the basics of ample sleep, exercise, and healthy food, I relied on these three strategies to maintain a high level of mental clarity, energy, and inspiration:
1—Daily meditation: In the quiet of my sitting practice, I could notice hesitations, discern choices, and sense the natural unfolding of what wanted to be worked on next.
2—A daily walk: While I walked, I’d reflect. I’d sense what wanted to happen next. And I’d explore any doubts, hesitations, resistance, or fear. I carried a tiny tape recorder to capture ideas.
3—Listening support: I used my two weekly Focusing partnership exchanges, and other ongoing listening partnerships, as a shared field in which to explore challenges and sense what was unfolding with my project.
This last strategy, listening support, deserves particular emphasis because it too often gets overlooked. Because sensitive people deal with a high level of inner complexity and intensity, we benefit enormously from a safe listening space—all the more so if we are being pushed to our limits. Deep listening directly facilitates the discernment and self-awareness you need to manage the overstimulation caused by in a big project.
If you’d like to cultivate long-term deep listening support, join us for the next Focusing 1 for Sensitive People course in September: Focusing is an ideal fit for sensitive people. And once you learn it, it’s free for life. Class size is limited so email me to reserve a spot.
Dahlia image ©2019 Emily Agnew