How to turn your introversion into a strength (part 2 of 2)

This post is a follow-up to part 1 of a two-part series about introversion.

“I can only start my real work when I get home at night. I just can’t concentrate with all those scattered meetings and calls throughout the day. I try to keep up with everything, but I’d rather sit down in a private room for a few hours to find some peace and focus, and get things done.”

Sounds familiar?

Then you’re not alone. I’ve heard fellow introverts express this sentiment time and time again. And I know how it feels, too.

You can be fully aware of your strengths as an introvert, yet still struggle to put them to use in the workplace. That’s because the level of social stimulation and distraction in the workplace may interfere with your ability to function at your best.

I started part 1 of this blog series by describing the endless space and silence of Greenland, which I explored by boat earlier this summer. A true introvert’s dream. Modern office life can feel like the exact opposite. Little private space. Continuous background noise. Intermittent meetings and calls that turn your calendar into a fragmented mess with little time for solo work. Especially for an introvert, these can be potentially disastrous energy drainers and productivity killers.

This leads us to the central question of this follow-up post:

How can you make the most of your strengths as an introvert, without depleting your battery in an attempt to keep up with the world around you?

If you’re introverted, there is a way to create your own sweet spot. But it requires work, discipline, the ability to say ‘no’ – and first of all, an honest self-assessment.

Finding your sweet spot as an introvert

As we saw in part 1 of this blog series, introverts are often good listeners, keen observers, and strong critical thinkers who excel in tasks that require sustained attention and effort. These are all potentially very powerful skills – but only under the right circumstances.

That’s why it’s important to understand under what your conditions you perform best.

You need to create an environment that works in favor of your personality.

I learned this the hard way. Early in my career, I would try to go with the flow around me – at the cost of productivity, personal well-being, and the people close to me. For example, I would regularly plan or participate in (often trivial) back-to-back meetings at work, placing a heavy burden on my ability to actively participate in group activity for extended periods of time. Or I would push myself to attend yet another social gathering after a long day at work – and then feel exhausted the next day. That was a mistake. What I really needed, was a restorative moment in between meetings or after work. Like a smartphone that needs to be recharged after a few long conversations.

What works for others, may not work for you.

So what can you do to create a work environment that works for you as an introvert? In this blog post, I will describe five tactics that have helped me along the way as I’ve grown a grey hair or two. Hopefully, they are useful to you as well.

How to create a work environment that works in your favor

1. Find a private workspace when you need it.

I once heard an introverted friend say that she would get more work done on the toilet than in an open office. While this is not something that I practice or encourage, I could relate to her pain. I do think that open office plans have their merits: they’re good for serendipitous collaboration, as you may bump into people who are working on the same goals as you are. And of course, it’s nice to catch up with colleagues regularly. In some positions, being highly visible and available may also be important to your job.

But let’s be honest: noisy open offices are awful for tasks that require deep, sustained thought, like writing or programming. If you’re introverted, the sensory stimulation is guaranteed to drive you bananas.

This is nothing to feel ashamed about. You’re not anti-social. If you need space for yourself, you need space for yourself. Be open about this with your manager and your team. Better still: discuss it when you’re applying for a job. Once you feel that there’s a potential match, ask for a short tour around the office: is this a place where you could function well? You wouldn’t buy a house before you’ve made a proper assessment of the place. Why should you approach your workplace any differently? During the week, you’re likely to spend more time at the office than at home.

The best workplaces allow you to shift from open collaboration to privacy and back, depending on your current tasks and personal needs.

Fortunately, more and more companies have come to realize that a combination of open-office areas and focus rooms is the way to go. This allows employees to shift from open collaboration to privacy and back, depending on their current tasks and personal needs. I always try to divide my week into full- or half-day blocks where I cluster meetings, interviews and semi-spontaneous encounters, and full- or half-day blocks where I can focus on writing without distractions or interruptions – either at home or in focus rooms at the office. That mix works very well for me. I cherish the freedom and trust I enjoy, and I encourage you to carve out your own space as well.

2. Avoid multi-tasking and ruthlessly defend your calendar.

Multi-tasking is usually one of the biggest weaknesses of an introvert (I am hopeless at it, too). So ban it from your life as much as possible.

This is, of course, easier said than done. As Cal Newport points out in his book ‘Deep work’, we now live in an internet-centric society where we have to actively defend our attention from being fragmented by a never-ending stream of e-mails, social media updates, and instant messages. Continuously caving in to the immediate is guaranteed to ruin your productivity. Especially when you’re introverted.

That’s why taking ownership of your calendar was never as important as it is today. Only by scheduling time for sustained attention can you escape the permanent state of semi-distraction that is all too common these days. Plan every hour of the day. Turn off all digital notifications if your job allows you to do so (this is not always possible, of course). Tell your colleagues they can reach you by phone if they urgently need you.

Only by scheduling time for sustained attention can you escape the permanent state of semi-distraction that is all too common these days.

When you’re invited to meetings, ask yourself whether your input is really necessary. Or try to schedule them later on the day, so you can first work a few hours in solitude. Again, this is not anti-social. It’s your way of getting things done.

3. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Do you find it hard to think and talk on the spot? This is another common theme among introverts: improvisation becomes harder when the spotlight is turned on you. That’s because physical arousal interferes with our attention and short-term memory, compromising our ability to think and express ourselves in the moment.

There’s a golden rule here that will save you frustration and embarrassment: prepare yourself. Of course it’s tempting to blame yourself for not being more spontaneous, and sometimes people will encourage you to rely more on your improvisation skills. But if there’s one thing that experience has taught me, it’s this: you’re far better off relying on your ability for meticulous preparation. It’s really quite simple: once you know what you want to say, you’ll be better at saying it.

People may encourage you to rely more on your improvisation skills, but if preparation works best for you, then focus on your preparation skills.

Are you joining a meeting that’s important to you? Ask for an agenda to be shared a couple of days in advance (which is good practice anyway), so you can prepare the points you want to raise. Have you been asked to give a public presentation? Rehearse aloud until you feel confident listening to your own voice.

Public speaking may seem like a nightmare at first, but with the right preparation you probably won’t die on stage. (I do speaking gigs now and then, and last time I checked, I could still feel my pulse). As an introverted speaker, you may not exude energy like an extroverted speaker would, but you can still tell a story well if you commit yourself to it.

4. Build relationships online.

If you like to connect with people in your field, but public speaking or networking events seem like a bridge too far right now, the internet can be a great alternative for you.

This is the great modern paradox of introversion. The same people who avoid the limelight in real life often have no problem confiding their deepest thoughts and feelings to total strangers via their blog or on social media (yes, that includes me). That’s because the online world offers us more time to think about what we want to say and how we want to say it. And, just as importantly, we can listen with full focus, carefully taking in other people’s words without feeling the pressure to respond straight away.

The online world offers introverts more time to think about what they want to say and how they want to say it.

You could argue that this new online reality comes at the cost of spontaneity and true connection. Indeed, things become troublesome when this tightly controlled switchboarding via social media becomes a substitute for real-life interactions, which are inherently messier but essential to our growth and happiness. However, we should not ignore the opportunity that the internet has given to introverts to find their voice. When you care deeply for people but the social world out there is not your comfort zone, why not use all the tools available to make life a bit easier for yourself?

If you’ve just started your career and your introversion is holding you back from building a network, start from your comfort zone. Begin a blog, for example. Connect with people on social media who seem interesting. Listen to them. Learn from them. And then extend these relationships into the physical world when you feel like it.

Just remember to use social media purposefully, because they have the potential to turn into a giant time suck as well (see tip 2 above). For example, plan time-chunks to catch up on social media, and stay away from them the rest of the day. This requires discipline, but it is crucially important for your ability to concentrate – especially because social media are so addictive. Remember, you want to refrain from multi-tasking at all costs.

5. Team up to excel.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ve found new ideas on how to shape your environment to your strengths and weaknesses. The inescapable truth remains that you will always suck at a lot of things. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There are other people who suck at other things, but who can complement you in areas where you suck.

From my experience, the most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts. When I look back on my career so far, I was usually at my best as the introverted side-kick to a more extroverted leader. He or she would lead the way with a grand and well-articulated ambition, and I would add the strategy, structure and persistence to make it work, together with the rest of the team. Complementary relationships like these can work really well.

The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of extroverts and introverts. Both excel and suck at different things.

Whenever you get the chance to, team up with more extroverted colleagues. Together, you can strike a balance between action and contemplation, between expression and reflection. Your extroverted colleagues will often be the ones who set things in motion, because they are more action-oriented. With your talent for asking the right questions and thinking things through, you can help flesh out strategy and processes. This will elevate the team as a whole.

Stretch yourself a bit – but only when it’s worth it

As an introvert, you have probably come a long way to where you are now. You may already have successfully applied some of the tactics that we have just explored. And yet still, you may struggle with your introversion at times, like a flash of self-doubt that takes over just when you thought you had conquered it.

That’s because we have left one nebulous question unaddressed so far:

What if the situation demands that you step out of your comfort zone? 

This happens all the time in life.

For example, what if your work requires you to reach out to large groups of people you don’t know yet? What if you’re asked to present at an important meeting but you don’t have much preparation time? Or, beyond the confines of the workspace: what if you’re dating an extroverted person who desperately wants you to join her to a party, when you’d rather have dinner together by candle light?

How far will you stretch yourself? 

If you stretch yourself too little, you become rigid and impossible to work or live with.

If you stretch yourself too far, too often, you will ultimately drain yourself.

So what do you do?

There are no easy answers here. As Susan Cain notes in her book ‘Quiet’, we all need to act out of character some of the time – in exchange for being ourselves the rest of the time. But this can prove disastrous if overdone.

That’s why, according to Cain, it is so important to know where you want to make a difference in work and in life – what Cain calls ‘core personal projects’. If you care deeply about something, it’s much easier to accept that you will need to stretch yourself a bit now and then. Then it’s all for the greater good. But if you step outside of your comfort zone just for the sake of stepping outside of your comfort zone, you will slowly burn out.

Step outside your comfort zone now and then – but only when it’s aligned to your goals and priorities.

If you find yourself stretching yourself day in day out, you may be in the wrong job or relationship. Then it may be time to let go, as painful as that may be. You’re not made of elastic. Find a new job. Surround yourself with different people. Allow yourself to breathe again. (For more practical advice, I encourage you to read Cain’s book.)

The one person we should be listening to

As we come to the end of this blog series, it’s tempting for the author to position himself as the hero of the story. The one who has conquered all challenges and who will now inspire others to follow his example.

But that would be a ludicrous exercise in vanity, best left for self-proclaimed gurus on LinkedIn.

I’m just an introvert like you, trying to find my way through life – succeeding at it now and then, and failing miserably just as often.

It’s a never-ending journey.

Just remember that it can be a beautiful one.

You have many talents to cultivate. And that probably includes being a good listener, right?

So, above all, don’t forget to listen to the person who knows best what you need in life.

That person is you.


Do you have any tips or experiences you would like to share? Feel free to leave a comment in the comment section below.



Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Penguin Books.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central Publishing.