Overwhelm is the feeling that you are drowning while buried by more than you can handle.
It’s a VERY easy state to find yourself in, especially if you’re trying to accomplish a goal.
In the beginning things are always easy. You get a project started and you’re flying high. Mid-way through the reality of how much work it’s going to take sets in. You start to slow down and doubt your ability to finish. Then life happens, or something changes and you’re suddenly buried in new facts or information.
That’s when it happens. You feel overwhelmed, becoming incapable of figuring out what to do next. You feel claustrophobic and trapped which activates your fight or flight response which ultimately leads to project shutdown.
You find yourself no longer writing.
I know this state well. I fight against it every day.
Overwhelm always occurs when you lose track of WHY you’re doing something (or you don’t know why you’re doing it at all). Worse yet, you get deep into the process and lose faith in the path you’re following.
Having a plan sometimes helps, but what do you do when you are suddenly thrown into the mix at work or in life and your plan comes apart on you? You know Robert Burns often mis-quoted saying right?
‘The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’
Yeah, I know I misquoted it too, but you get the point…
Here are 12 ways to get yourself out of overwhelm. 7 before you hit that state and 5 while you’re in the middle of it.
Before I get going please understand — no matter how long you’ve been doing this, you WILL find yourself feeling this at some (or many) points.
‘Before’ you feel overwhelmed.
- Do you have a morning or evening ritual? — Chances are the feeling is coming from not having built-in safeguards against it. A morning or evening ritual will focus your energy by forcing your mind back onto the path you consciously created. Remember, overwhelm is a feeling of fear and inadequacy. If you already KNOW where you’re going there’s no need to fear.
- Outsource — You know its difficult, but here’s the thing — you don’t have to do everything yourself. Working on a project that requires disciplines you don’t have (web design, audio/video editing, software writing) can stop you dead in your tracks. There are dozens of ways to get this stuff done without your needing to learn a whole new skill. Use sites like Upwork or Fiverr to your advantage. Get things off your plate that slow you down or take away from your core skill.
- Realize that you might have to dump the story or project — This one sucks, but sometimes its necessary. If you find that you’ve been stuck or feel overwhelmed by a particular project and its been months, the problem might be the project, not you. Stop yourself (I mean REALLY stop) and walk away from the project for a while. After some time if you discover that you’re still not getting anywhere it might be time to put it to the side permanently and work on something else. Remember at the end of the day writing is voluntary, you don’t have to finish a project just because you started it.
- Prep things ahead of time — The more prep work you do, the easier it is to start and finish projects. You won’t have those nagging issues floating around the back of your skull pulling you away. Get your coffee ready before you sit down. Make sure the kids and the husbands needs are met. I know its a little gross to say but use the bathroom before you begin as well. You want nothing to intrude during that scheduled time.
Which leads me to -
- Schedule your writing — I do most of my writing in the morning. I wake up at 4:30 AM, do my morning ritual and then spend a minimum of 2 25 minute sprints using a pomodoro timer. I’ve talked before about how RAW raw can be so don’t let that stop you either. Just get the words out of your head. If you keep a schedule long enough your mind and body become attuned to it. That is one easy way to defeat overwhelm because it’s a built-in habit you do without thinking.
- Create boundaries — if you’re serious about this then you’ll create a space that’s just for writing. Like I said above, i get up early because it’s the one point of time that no one else needs me. I am able to wall myself off for a short period so that i can produce what i say i want to produce. I’m not talking about ignoring anyone or being selfish although to a degree you’re allowed to be selfish at least a bit. I mean really, it’s YOUR life…
- Writing down your feeling and plans — This is something you can do ahead of time to prevent overwhelm. Spend some time (I do mine at night before bed) writing down your feelings and observations about your day. You’d be surprised how much of this makes great fodder for later writing. Also, it helps put things into perspective. You force your mind to align itself with reality by removing some of the subjectiveness from your day. Yes, some things didn’t go the way you wanted, but does that mean it was a conspiracy against you? Get some clarity by stepping away from any one incident and I guarantee that your focus will sharpen.
‘During’ — When you start to feel overwhelmed.
- Pay attention — Notice when you’re beginning to feel buried. Did this just start a few minutes ago while you were writing raw text or has it been going on for weeks because — life? If you quickly spot the difference between being stuck while searching for the right word and being stuck because you’re about to panic that’s your clue that its time to chill for a while. This takes practice and awareness of your own mind.
- Step away from what you’re doing — It’s temporary, the project will still be there when you come back. You need to step away and re-charge, otherwise things will just get worse.
- Shut out the noise — Sometimes its necessary to shut out the extra noise that comes with being a thinking, feeling human being. I’m talking about the stuff that gets in your head when you listen to the news or your gossipy neighbor or your screaming boss. The best way to shut out the noise is to study silencing methods like meditation, mindfulness or moving your body. You have to silence the chatty nonsense that’s filtering through your head as you’re trying to write. This is something you can do even in the midst of overwhelm. It takes practice but its definitely possible.
- Shut out everything that ISN’T the project — Turn off the radio (unless you’re listening to your beat music), turn off the TV, turn off your email, turn off your phone — you get where I’m going with this. Eliminate distractions ahead of sitting down to write. One of my favorites ways is the software I use to write these posts. It’s called Write Monkey and it turns off the crap you get with most writing software. There’s just a blank page and me. No spell or grammar checker pulling my mind away from what I’m doing. No reminders that i haven’t saved in 20 minutes (because I have autosave already running). Just the page and the word. No distractions.
- Talk to your mentor — You have one right? If not you should definitely consider finding someone who’s been at this longer than you who can offer encouragement and advice. No one ever got to be an amazing writer sitting alone in a bunker in the dark.
Being overwhelmed is a state of mind. Just like being happy or sad or angry. It’s temporary, just like those other states. You don’t have to let it take over and keep you from achieving your goals.
So what do you do when you are starting to feel overwhelmed and close to panic? It’s not an easy thing to deal with and even professionals feel it. I can’t count the number of times that writers I know have told me that they panic they are losing their book or project half way through. It’s natural so don’t sweat it. Recognize it for what it is and keep it moving.