Working Like An Introvert

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Some days, I just want to stay in and away from everyone
Some days, I just want to stay in and away from everyone

I’ve always known I’m an introvert. But it wasn’t until I read Susan Cain’s Quiet that I realized how much work and cultural practices are built around extroversion. Quiet helped me figure out how to manage my work better to leverage my strengths as an introvert instead of trying to work around my weaknesses. If you are an introvert, this might help you too.

1. Find your optimal level of stimulation

Cain posits that introversion is about sensitiveness to stimuli, which made perfect sense to me. We introverts like to feel in control, we find it hard to adapt to disruptive experiences: strange places, strange people, noise. The key, I’ve learnt, is to first figure out what’s the best level of stimulation that makes you most productive.

For example, I am okay with a couple of internal or phone meetings a day, and one or two external meetings a week. More than that, and I find it difficult to concentrate on my “actual work.”

2. Manage your schedule

Once you’ve figured out what works for you, manage your schedule as far as you can to work with your needs. For example, I push meetings to later in the day, when I’m less likely to be productive anyway. I make sure I get plenty of time to work alone. I try to do the more routine coordination and collaboration online, so that meetings are more productive.

3. Give yourself enough downtime

Of course, #2 won’t be enough. I might have to do more than one or two external meetings some weeks, and attending events is sometimes necessary. I might have to spend four hours on Monday morning working closely with my team.

But when it happens, I give myself time to rest afterwards and don’t berate myself for not being productive (as I used to before reading the book). I recognize that a week with a bunch of meetings is not going to be productive for me, and I try and get through some of my work in advance so that I don’t have to worry about it.

4. Give yourself enough privacy

I like working alone. I find it hard to get anything very productive done (especially writing) around other people. So I’ll work in my office with the door shut or go into my bedroom for extra quiet time when I need it. Having a physical space to myself helps me focus. Get yourself that space – even if it’s time rather than space: say, early in the morning or late at night, when others are asleep, or the middle of the afternoon, when others are busy and you’re less likely to get interrupted.

If you can’t work in private, do something that will let you be alone: a long walk before work, reading a book or listening to an audio book on your commute, something that will help you relax and regain your energy.

5. Give yourself enough stimulation

It’s not just too much stimulation that’s the problem: not enough, and you might feel bored and unsatisfied.

I need to go out for fun (meet a friend for coffee, go on a long drive with my husband) at least once in a week or two, or I get angsty. I don’t want too many meetings, but some meetings are good, even necessary. If you have been cooped up in the house for too long, go meet a friend, attend an event, or even just go out to a bookshop or a café.

6. Make sure your job is capitalizing on your strengths

I enjoy discussions and meetings, but I don’t feel like I’m actually working unless I’m creating something – a blog post, a website content plan, requirements for a new product feature. I wouldn’t be happy in a job that requires me to put in a lot of face-to-face time and doesn’t give me enough scope to work on my own.

This isn’t a short-term measure, but it’s important to make sure that any career changes you make take your introversion into account. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take up any public-facing role: many introverts are good at public speaking or customer service or sales. What’s important is to make sure you know what you’re getting into: will you enjoy the selling because you believe passionately in what you’re selling? Will the customer service take place mostly over email and phone, so you don’t have to actually meet people? Will your public speaking allow you enough time to prepare beforehand and rest afterwards so that you can maintain your enthusiasm?

For example, I’ve loved conducting workshops, but I turned down a recent opportunity because it takes out a lot of energy from me and I need a few days to recover, so I can’t do it without carving out a big block of time in my schedule. A webinar though, is much easier to recover from. (And I don’t have to worry about what to wear!)

I wish I had understood all this years ago: I’d have used my time much more productively and (probably more important) been happier. But it’s not too late, and changing my habits and expectations is already making a difference to my life.

What about you? If you are an introvert, have you made similar adjustments in your life? Any tricks you’ve found useful that you’d like to share?

(And if you’re an extrovert, feel free to mock my reluctance to leave the house. Go ahead.)

6 thoughts on “Working Like An Introvert

  1. This post almost makes me want to be an introvert ;) I’m an ambivert, though, so it gets confusing at times. I need a lot of introspection to understand what works for me in which situation. And I easily forget my lessons too. Maybe I should write things down somewhere and then refer to them often I get habituated to them.

  2. Very useful. It’s something I’ve been thinking of a lot recently too. I’ve noticed that this typically becomes a bigger problem as you become more senior in any organization, junior people can get away with less interaction and as you advance you can’t avoid having to deal with people.
    Good tips on structuring your day too. A trick I use along similar lines is to have meeting days and non-meeting days. Because recovery time is so costly I find it better to have some days with absolutely no planned meetings and other days that have more but where I plan not to do anything else.

    1. sphinx: Thanks for commenting. I agree absolutely with what you say. Some amount of interaction is essential, but we introverts need some time to recover! I also like your trick of non-meeting days. I find that even one non-meeting day a week helps me recover, concentrate on my ‘individual work’, and come back energized the next day!

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