Finding the Right Level of Stimulation

Finding the right level of stimulation

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 under-stimulating, causing us to feel bored and listless. Other situations are over-stimulating, 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. Favor bright, slightly bluish lighting instead of dim or yellowish light. 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 under-stimulating 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 over-stimulating, 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. Favor 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, favoring private offices where they can close the door and work without interruption. For these people, the presence of other people is over-stimulating 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 over-stimulating and stressful. Other people find such places under-stimulating 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.

Physical Stimulation

What level of physical contact feels right to you? How much touch do you like to experience on a typical day?

You’ll surely have different preferences with a lover vs. a family member vs. a casual acquaintance. And your preferences will surely fluctuate over time. But in general, what can you say about your preferences?

Have you shared your preferences with the people closest to you? Are they respecting your preferences?

As a child I was hardly touched at all. I often cringed when people touched me. Even a casual touch often felt uncomfortable. Being touched was too much stimulation. Going through a day with little or no touch, except in certain circumstances like the contact that happens in sports, was my preference.

These days I prefer lots of touch each day. I like greeting people with hugs when I first meet them; a handshake feels under-stimulating and awkward compared to the warmth of a friendly hug. Of course the best situation is when I meet a like-minded hugger. But even a semi-willing hug from someone who isn’t as comfortable with it still feels better than a boring handshake… unless I happen to be feeling over-stimulated already and would prefer a bit less stimulation.

When you’re in a relationship, it’s important for the sake of compatibility that you and your partner share similar preferences for how you like to be touched and how often. Otherwise one person will feel over-stimulated while the other feels under-stimulated… or both. This often leads to resentment, whereby your partner seems too cold and aloof or too needy and clingy. You may even start applying these labels to yourself, wondering why you’re so cold or so clingy, when the reality is that you simply have a different stimulation preference than your partner does.

There’s no substitute for genuine compatibility here. If you and your partner don’t match up, do yourself a favor and acknowledge the glaring incompatibility. Move on, and find someone who more closely matches your desired stimulation zone. You’ll be much happier.

I like to joke that I had to go all the way to Canada to find a woman who’s compatible with me in this area. Since my ideal stimulation zone these days includes lots of touch, it’s been wonderful being in an almost 5-year relationship with a woman who loves to touch as much as I do. By sharing an abundance of touch, we’re able to keep our connection lively and engaging, without feeling bored on one side or stressed on the other.

If you’re the opposite, however, and you find most touch to be over-stimulating for you, that’s just as valid, and you’ll likely be more comfortable with a like-minded, low-touch partner.

Our brains are truly wired differently. For one person, a mild form of touch may produce lots of neural activity, while someone else may need much more physical stimulation to produce the same levels of brain activity. Much of this is hard-wired into us from birth.

There’s some interesting evidence that high-reactive infants (very sensitive to stimulation) are much more likely to become introverts later in life vs. low-reactive infants, who are more likely to become extroverts. The more sensitive you are to external stimuli, the less is needed to produce a strong internal reaction. What stimulates an introvert may bore an extrovert, and what stimulates an extrovert may stress out an introvert. But each person is simply favoring their natural zone of engagement.

Mental Stimulation

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 under-stimulated, 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 over-stimulated, 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 where 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.

Emotional Stimulation

What’s your optimal range for emotional stimulation? What does it take to put you in the sweet spot of emotional engagement with life? What makes you feel mildly aroused as opposed to bored or overly excited?

Many people ask me how I deal with criticism. They’re surprised that I don’t seem particularly phased by it. One reason is that I don’t find criticism as emotionally stimulating as some people do. If I receive a critical email, for instance, it may not affect me as strongly as it might affect someone else. My nervous system normally doesn’t generate a strong emotional response there. This gives me the advantage of being able to write honestly and openly about topics that may expose me to more criticism, but the downside is that since I’m not as sensitive as some people, I may also risk coming across as too harsh or insensitive in my writing.

Emotional stimulation is a major factor in relationship compatibility. If you feel bored with your partner, it may be that your partner has a lower desired stimulation range. If your partner’s behavior makes you feel stressed or anxious, the opposite may be true.

When I meet someone new, I often like to test the waters to see what their preferred stimulation range is. With a short-term interaction, such as meeting for coffee, I do my best to adapt to the other person’s comfort zone.

My girlfriend Rachelle and I do an excellent job of keeping each other emotionally stimulated. We do this with humor, silliness, sensuality, sexuality, spontaneity, and more. The challenge is to keep the stimulation levels within or near the other person’s desired range. If your attempts at humor are weak, for instance, you may bore your partner. And if you stretch too far the other way, you may cause irritation or confusion more than positive engagement. Sharing lots of genuine laughter together is a wonderful way to create a strong emotional bond.

If you find certain situations to be emotionally over-stimulating, you can train yourself to find them less stimulating with practice.

For many people, public speaking is more emotionally stimulating than their ideal range, making them feel nervous, tense, anxious, or scared. The overall stimulation level of the experience is too high, so it activates a fight or flight response.

I found Toastmasters to be an excellent way to build comfort with public speaking — I was an active member from 2004 to 2010 — because it provides opportunities to stay within your desired stimulation level as you gain experience and improve. At your first meeting, you may only introduce yourself to the group from your seat for a few seconds, and that’s all the speaking you’ll do. When you’re ready for your first speaking project (the Icebreaker), it’s only 4-6 minutes; you can even write it out word for word and read it if you want, and afterwards you’re likely to be lavished with applause no matter what. The group makes it easy to keep making progress with positive and friendly social support. As you keep showing up to club meetings, you’ll make friends with the other members, and so you’ll begin to feel that you’re speaking to a group of helpful friends instead of threatening strangers. You’ll also become familiar with the meeting room, which can gradually help you tone down the stimulation level.

Initially I found public speaking to be over-stimulating like most people do. But after many years of actively engaging in it, I gradually adapted to it. These days I’m at risk of finding it under-stimulating, so I take steps to keep it engaging, so it doesn’t feel too routine. I move around a lot when I speak to keep my body engaged. I greet attendees with hugs. I involve the audience with questions, social activities, games, and exercises. This keeps me in my sweet spot, so I don’t feel too comfortable and lose my emotional edge.

Pushing yourself emotionally can be a mixed bag. Facing and overcoming your fears may give you access to more opportunities, but you may also risk losing some sensitivity along the way. So pace yourself, and don’t be afraid to back off temporarily to regain some sensitivity if you find yourself having to do crazier and crazier things just to feel engaged with your life, while feeling numb to your everyday experiences.

Financial Stimulation

How much financial stimulation can you handle? What level of risk-taking feels good to you? What type of financial flow feels lively and pleasantly stimulating?

Does a steady and predictable paycheck bore you, or does it feel comforting to know in advance what you’re earning? Could you handle being an entrepreneur whereby your take-home pay isn’t constant and may often be negative? If you got laid off, would that stress you out? Or would you only perceive it as a minor inconvenience?

Do you feel most engaged with your life when your income is stable? Increasing? Decreasing? Nonexistent?

Having been an entrepreneur for more than 20 years, I enjoy not knowing in advance what I’ll earn each year. I don’t feel over-stimulated by income surges or dips. If I had a stable monthly paycheck, I’d likely feel under-stimulated and bored, maybe a little depressed. I prefer the normal swings of entrepreneurial income. It keeps me on my toes and makes my work feel more engaging.

I’ve even noticed that when my income begins to drop, I can feel more positively engaged than when it’s stable or increasing. Seeing my income drop often stimulates me to create some new income streams. It doesn’t stress me out because I feel competent and capable of using my creativity to generate more income whenever I desire. I’ve also been through a bankruptcy before, so going broke doesn’t scare me much; if it happened again, I’m sure I could handle it.

Some people spiral into major stress or depression if they lose a job or see their income plummet; even the threat of this happening can be unpleasantly overstimulating. Consequently, they’ll tend to favor security and familiarity over growth and new experiences.

When I spend money, however, I tend to be fairly conservative relative to my income. I like keeping my expenses well below my earnings. I don’t maintain any credit card debt. I like having all of my bills paid with a nice cushion of extra cash. I like the feeling of having more money than I need. By itself this can be under-stimulating, but it enables me to enjoy more stimulation as I pursue creative ideas without worrying about the financial consequences. I can write new articles because the topics interest me and I think they may provide value for others, as opposed to writing for web traffic or income. This kind of stimulation feels just right to me. But many people actually thrive under financial stress; they need the threat of going broke to get into action.

What about maintaining your financial accounts and handling your tax filings? I used to find this immensely boring and hadn’t balanced my checking account in 2.5 years at one point. I took steps to make the work more engaging, and now I have a good routine for keeping everything up to date on a monthly basis, and it doesn’t take much time at all. Initially I assumed I was avoiding such tasks due to finding them stressful, so I tried to make them more relaxing. But actually I needed to make them more stimulating, so I wouldn’t be so bored. When I put on some of my favorite music and did much of the work standing up, with a timer to push myself to go faster, I flowed through such tasks with greater ease and comfort. Another thing that helped was doing the tasks right after exercising, so my metabolism was already revved up.

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 procrastinating 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, eventually the student gets into action mode and plows 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 favorite 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 levels 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 certains forms. Especially experiment with sound levels, lighting, and the way you use your body to engage with the task.

By Steve Pavlina

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