Dealing with Overwhelm
We’ve all been there, right? At some point in our lives, we get so busy and stressed out that something has got to give.
For some of us, that’s writing. For others, that’s going out on the weekend, or sleep, or time with our friends, or making dinner, or cleaning the house. Or maybe when it’s your writing stressing you out, you choose to clean the house and go out with your friends and avoid everything writerly!
So if everyone deals with stress and “too much to do” syndrome, what is there to do about it? (I hear you saying, “Please don’t add another to-do to my list!” I feel you. I do.) But because I’m a list-maker, I’m going to make a list. And if you’re struggling with overwhelm, maybe this list will help you.
Step 1: Make a List
First off, list all the things that are on your mind. Not all the things that must get done, but all the things that are on your mind and making you feel overwhelmed.
This list could look something like this:
- teach my child to read
- finish my first draft of books 3 & 4 in my fairy tale series before the end of 2017
- finish revising Broken Time based on reader feedback
- clean the house
- wash, dry & fold the laundry
- train the puppy
- enroll 3 yo in preschool
- make automated messages for my mailing list
- create a mailing list
- edit my final draft of Spurn the Moon
- format Spurn the Moon for publishing
- write blog post
- email blog subscribers
- make ophthalmologist appointment
- make dentist appointment for self & 3 year old
. . .99. beta read my friend’s book
Go ahead, list it all out. Every single thing that could be bothering you and distracting you from really getting things done.
Whew. Sometimes just the act of writing things down takes a load off, doesn’t it? Yes, sometimes it makes it look even more overwhelming when you end up with a gigantic list you couldn’t possibly do in one day, but here’s a little secret: (Come in close for this one) . . . You do NOT have to do all these things today.
Step 2: Rating Your List
Okay, so here’s a kind of fun task for your list. (Yes, there was a reason for making this list–it wasn’t just cathartic.) Now you get to rate your list. And not on a level of “This is the best list ever!” or “This list is so awful, I’m never, ever going to be able to cross everything off!”
Go through your list and evaluate how important all these tasks are. Give them a rating of urgency if you need to: 1 star = low priority, 3 star = high priority.
Now look at all those 3 star items. (Hopefully all of them are not 3 star.) And examine them and ask yourself which ones you can accomplish quickly today.
For example, enrolling my son in preschool would not take a long time. Nor would calling the ophthalmologist and dentist and making appointments. If that’s a 3-star item, then sit down right now (or as soon as they open), and make the appointment.
Trust me: You’ll feel much better when you can take a pen and mark that item off your list. And you know what? You don’t have to make the appointment for this week either–not unless it’s an emergency–just make it for next month or a quieter time.
Get those easy-to-accomplish, takes-a-short-time tasks crossed off your list right now. And if you’re a competitive sort, time yourself and see how many you can get done in 5 or 15 minutes. Make it fun.
Step 3: Procrastinating (And Saying “No.”)
Now here’s the fun part of why we made the list: procrastinating. 😉
Yep, you heard me right.
Now what you get to do is go through that list and pencil out (to defer, not eliminate) anything that does NOT have to be done right this minute.
Sometimes, that may be your writing tasks, it may be that you don’t really have the time or need to beta read a friend’s work right now. Here’s another secret: It’s okay to say NO. Truly.
And in addition to this, if you come across a task that you can assign to someone else, or ask someone else to help with, or even completely cross off your list permanently, DO IT.
Sometimes, it’s better to say “No” now than to overcommit and burn yourself out. If you try to do too much at once, your performance will suffer in all things, and you’ll be unhappy with everything. So choose a few important tasks and commit to them. You’ll thank yourself later.
Step 4: Make a Plan (& Breathe)
Okay. Now you’ve accomplished a few things and made a dent on your overwhelming list of things to do. You’ve even removed a couple items that you’ve decided don’t have to be done at all. It feels good, doesn’t it?
Now look at a few of your larger tasks. For me, that would be “write books 3 & 4” in my fairy tale series. Those are HUGE tasks that won’t be accomplished in one day. So if I take this task as a whole, of course I’m going to get overwhelmed. I’m going to be thinking every day: I have to write 200K words in six months. How am I going to do that? I’ll tell you how: By breaking it up into smaller items.
Don’t let a huge task overwhelm you by itself. Break it into small tasks. If you’re publishing a book this year, break it down into cover design, revisions, copy editing, back cover blurb, etc.
I imagine each book will be about 100K, and there are (currently) about 190 days left in 2017. That works out to just over 1000 words a day. Okay. That’s an attainable word count for one day. In fact, I can easily double that–if I know what I’m writing.
Based on previous experiences writing novels, I can’t just “wing it.” And I can do this even less with a series that needs to be cohesive and coherent from books 1-4. I need to know the end I’m writing toward for each book. I should know the plot points and the characters in each book and their goals. I need a plan.
No, planning isn’t getting my novel written. But in a way, it is. Because when I plan what I’m going to do, I not only make my future writing quicker, less painful, and easier to accomplish, I am also setting myself up for success.
Because I plan ahead of time, I can know when I need to be done outlining by, and how many words I need to write each day in order to meet my deadline.
Now, do this for your most pressing tasks. Maybe it’s not a writing task. Maybe it’s a family-task, or a day-job task. But break it down into small, manageable steps.
Now, take a deep breath, give yourself a pat on the back, because Step 5 is not nearly as fun as Step 3.
Step 5: Start Working
The sucky thing about this overwhelm where everything needs to be done and you have many important tasks to accomplish is this: You have to (eventually) do the tasks you’re a) dreading, b) procrastinating, or c) feel intimidated by.
To be honest, I’m a bit intimidated by the fact that I have about 200K words to write by the end of this year. But it’s not actually the number of words that has me stressed.
What’s really, honestly, truly stressing me out is that I want those words to be quality so that I’m not stuck in rewrites for ages. Thus the planning, plotting, and outlining.
But the only way to meet my self-imposed deadline is to get the words down. And so instead of lamenting what I have to do, how many words I have left, instead I need to sit down and get to work. And right now, that means planning my next two novels.
Bonus Tip #6: Making Time for Those Tasks.
Part of the reason I had you sit down and rate your tasks’ urgency, as well as crossing off those lesser items that can go, is because of this bonus tip.
You may feel like you do not have the time to accomplish any of these tasks. And to be honest, maybe you don’t have time to accomplish them all before they’re due. (See Step 3.)
Now, if you’ve crossed off everything that you can live without and even delegated everything you can delegate, then here’s some tough love: You need to learn to say “No.”
And if you’ve said “No” to everything you can, delegated, and tried everything else, and are human, and have a humanly accomplishable list, then maybe what you have is a time-management problem.
Have you taken a look at how you spend your time throughout the day? Are there moments where you are sitting in the doctor’s office waiting and, instead of flipping through an out-of-date magazine, can get something crossed off your list? Do you find yourself watching Netflix or Hulu at night instead of getting something productive done? Can you check your messages on Twitter or send out an email to your followers while your child takes a bath? (No, it may not be ideal, and I don’t recommend always doing this, but maybe there are times you just have to make that compromise.)
It’s not easy to be constantly productive, but if you treat it like a 9 to 5 job, maybe by the time 5 o’clock rolls around, you will actually have thirty minutes to sit down and veg in front of the TV.