What to Do When You’re Overwhelmed

It happens to us all.

Every now and then you just go a tiny, wee-bit batshit about how much there is to do.

OverwhelmThere are query letters to send, guest posts to write, another round of corrections with your editor, invoices to send out for some freelance work you did…

…there are synopses to be written, your own website hasn’t been updated since the turn of some prior century, your social media followers haven’t heard from you in so long they’ve divided into two camps: Alien Abduction vs. Fallen Into a Narrow Crevasse and Gnawing Her Own Arm Off…

…there are conferences and workshops and networking events to attend, that library wants you to be a guest speaker to some kids (as if they care), research for a piece you’ve been putting off, a steadily-expanding list of writing articles you’ve been meaning to read…

What else?

Oh yeah… the writing.

Actual ass-in-chair bleed-onto-your-keyboard creative time.

You’re only one person. With so many hours in a day. With only so many of those hours that the dog isn’t whining to go out, or the tummy rumbling to put food in, or the plumbing springing a sudden and spectacular leak.

For me it’s about every six months. I flat out lose it. I melt down for a day. You can set your watch to it.

But I always come out of it.

Here’s how…

1. Recognize and Identify the Squirmy Feeling

It doesn’t feel good. It feels like your getting kicked in the balls and brain at the same time, and all you want to do is curl up in bed and make it go away because obviously you’re an inadequate human being who’s bitten off way more than they can chew.

Familiar?

It’s called “overwhelm”.

Recognize it. Identify it. Own it.

But also understand that it’s a good thing.

Nope, not joking.

Overwhelm is an immensely valuable signal. It’s the brain’s way of telling us to stop For the Love of Walt Whitman trying to focus on Ten Things At Once.

(That, dumbass, is the opposite of focusing.)

It’s saying: “Pick. One. Thing. Cripesake.”

It’s a good signal to get.

It’s kind of like an old-timey good guy backhanding you across the face. “Pull yourself together, man,” the brain snarls. “Stop panicking and focus.”

We think being overwhelmed means we have a lot to do.

We’re wrong.

When we’re overwhelmed we’ve forgotten one immutable, essential law of life: there is only, ever, one thing to do: the next thing.

You might have heard this one before: Lack of time is actually lack of priorities.

That squishy, squirmy feeling is your brain telling you to get your priorities straight. It’s telling you to decide what that next thing is.

We’ll talk about how to do that here in a minute, but next…

2. Acknowledge, Right Now, That You Will NEVER Do it All (Nor Do You Have To)

We might define happiness as a sense of fulfillment. And fulfillment as making your inner world manifest. What we’re trying to do, in essence, is turn the In-Here into the Out-There.

Simple, right? (Take that, centuries of philosophers.)

The problem: the mind never stops working or creating. Yet you must. It will always outstrip you. You will never make everything in there manifest. Ever.

Which is OKAY.

For one, some ideas are never supposed to see the light of day. They’re okay, not great. Sometimes they’re even mediocre or ugly. Sometimes they flat-out stink, even though they might smell like a bouquet of roses in the moment.

Umm, keep those mental farts under wraps, okay? Some things are better left unshared.

Two, when do you think this fabled time will happen when you’ve said everything you need to say? Done all you need to do? Read all you want to read? We will, every one of us, die with much unsaid, with much undone, with much unread. That’s the natural order. At some point, it’s someone else’s turn. The trick is to not die with our best still in us, un-manifested or undone.

Three, remember the Pareto Principle, aka. The 80/20 Rule. It says 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort.

That means 80% of the stuff you fret, worry, and expend effort on doesn’t even matter. Focus on your best 20% and that’s the whole game. In practical terms: if you have five things you “need” to do, which one, if you completed it, would be worth the whole lot of them? Decide.

If all you ever focus on and accomplish is the top 20% of your ideas or intentions, you’ve won. How much do you think most people manifest in their lifetimes?

One percent?

0.1%?

0.01%?

I doubt it’s even that.

20% is massive. 20% is probably enough to become Supreme Overlord of the Universe.

(Just don’t abuse your power. We will rebel.)

3. Acknowledge, and Record, Whatever You Are Dissatisfied With

How do we even know what “the best within us” is?

Here’s a hint: what are you pissed off about? Disappointed about? Unsatisfied with? Longing for?

Start keeping track of it. Sometimes our destination isn’t exactly clear, but our dissatisfactions are the runway lights telling us which direction to take off.

The mistake we make: we try to ignore the dissats and do what we think we’re “supposed” to do.

For example, you’ve got this amazing story idea for a modern day setting but you dismiss it because you and your editor and your adoring fans all agree you’re supposed to be a “fantasy writer”. (Labels are death for a writer’s brain. See [here].) You ignore your dissatisfaction that the story doesn’t yet exist. And this only adds to your overwhelm because our brains never forget our dissats, do they? They gnaw away at us over time. Dismissing your dissats is like trapping rats in a box made of cheese.

Here’s the key: don’t be afraid of dissatisfaction/anxiety. Just the opposite: pay very close attention to it. Let it guide you.

I don’t know of a better way of dealing with dissats than writing them down. Get them out of your head so you can deal with them as external objects.

That thing that gives you “the squirms” now might eventually become your opus.

4. Organize What You Wrote Down Into Priorities

Here‘s where we decide on that One Thing to focus on.

Honestly, how you decide matters less than THAT you decide.

You could just look at your list of dissats, pick one, say to hell with the rest for now and get to work on it, and I would applaud you.

If you’re like me though, things are a little more involved. I tend to keep an ongoing list, refining it over time, moving things up when I experience a sense of dissatisfaction about them, moving them down when they’re not as pressing. This works for me. It’s simple, but also comprehensive.

Do what works for you. Any method of prioritizing will do, provided you think it’s an accurate description of your inner world.

Here’s what not to do, though…

Do Not Make a To-Do List.

A priority list is not the same as a to-do list.

In fact, if you think about it, it’s just the opposite.

A to-do list lists everything, big things, small things, even trivial things, and tells you you must get to them all… which your brain already knows is an impossibility. A to-do list makes us more anxious than when we had no list at all. A to-do list is overwhelming.

A priority list is a NOT-to-do List. It relegates everything that’s not the best, not the most important, not worthy of our attention, down to “later, if ever” status.

If I list all the books I ever want to read, I’m stressed—my brain knows I’ll never get to them. But if I prioritize that list, the stress goes away. I know I’ll never read those books on the bottom of the list, but that’s okay… I’m not meant to. I will always be focused on the one book I want to read the most.

That will always be true with the priority list. There’s comfort in that.

Setting priorities is really about deciding on your “not-to-do’s”. Even your “never-do’s”.

List them, de-prioritize them, then happily ignore them for all time.

If you’re honest about your feelings, the thing you’re most dissatisfied with will find its way to the top. You’ll know it’s your top priority. You’ll look at it, and it’ll look back at you like a hungry dog that wants to do battle over a bone.

And you will oblige it.

Again, prioritizing (more importantly, de-prioritizing) is just something I do to keep the squirmy feelings away. However you do it, you’re doing it right—you’re getting yourself away from overwhelm. Over time, you develop the sense of satisfaction that you’re focused on the One Thing you’re supposed to be focused on.

And guess what? Every six months or so you might still get overwhelmed. That’s life.

When it happens to me, I always, always bring myself out of it by setting priorities and narrowing in on One Next Thing.

5. Don’t Obsess Over It

A caution: there’s a way all your list making and priority-setting can lead you astray.

The priority list is just a tool to help you decide—it’s not your master.

It’s a way of taking your internal squirms and turning them into action. It’s not something to obsess over and tinker with and make “perfect”. This is known as “analysis paralysis”.

If you never get to action, then what was the point?

Your lists will change. They’ll get better and more accurate over time. Or they won’t. Sometimes you’ll throw them out and start anew. Sometimes you’re gonna pour a ton of focus into something, only to realize later it is actually wasn’t that important.

It‘s okay. It happens to everyone.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

We’re not striving for the perfect recreation of your inner world, which is impossible anyway. It’s neurons talking to pens, paper, and keyboards. Something’s bound to be lost in translation.

All we’re trying to do when we set priorities is represent our inner world, as best we can, in a way that feels intuitively right to us.

Write down your dissats. Organize them in some way. Pick the top thing and focus on it.

It needn’t be more complicated than that.

6. Eschew Comparison… With One Exception

Here’s another surefire way of putting yourself in overwhelm: compare yourself to other people.

Talk about the quick road to misery.

Comparing yourself to others sets an impossible standard. There’s a lot of people out there. More all the time. You might be better than someone else, but there’s no way to be better than everyone else, forever. Again, you’re only one person.

If your happiness hinges on you being better than other people, enjoy your life of frustration and despair.

(I can’t help but observe that Hemingway made repeated mention in interviews of trying to “be the best” or at least be better than anyone that had come before. No doubt he was right—for a time. Then he spent his final years in paranoia, declining health, and eventually ate a shotgun. Makes you think.)

Also, who would want to be the best, forever? When someone bests us we can learn from them, make them our master, strive to be better, experience the glow of admiration. A life with no one to look up to and admire sounds just as horrible as a life with no one at all, period. Want to be the absolute best with no competition? Why not go stand perfectly still in a featureless, colorless, windowless room? Better yet, go live on an uninhabited planet. I hear Mars is looking for people.

If you decide to stay here with us Earthbound folk, I have a better suggestion: learn to compare yourself with yourself.

The only person you’re trying to beat is your past self. Start measuring your performance and trying to beat it, incrementally.

Words per day, for example. When I started writing seriously my word output per day was ridiculously small—somewhere in the vicinity of twenty-five to a hundred words. By comparison, Present-Day Me just wrote a hundred words in about a minute and a half. It used to be hard. Now, not so much.

I kept plugging away and trying to one-up myself. Soon one hundred become two hundred, became six hundred, became eight hundred… now I can consistently spit out a thousand to twelve hundred words per day. Maybe someday I’ll write two thousand a day.

The point is, if I had read Stephen King’s On Writing and decided that to be a “serious writer” you needed to write two thousand words a day or forget it (in other words, shrewdly giving myself the standard of the single most prolific author living in our times) I would have quit in despair from the get-go. What business do I have, when I can’t even write a measly hundred??

Instead, by incrementally beating my past performance, I’ve written two novels, two novellas, a dozen short stories, and dozens of blog posts. Can my output be better? Sure. I’d like to be one of these writers that writes dozens of novels, hundreds of short stories, and thousands of blog posts. But I know I’ll never get there by comparing myself to them. It’ll be by comparing myself to Yours Truly… incrementally beating my past performance as time goes on.

So, I highly encourage you to develop some kind of incremental quota system. Keep trying to beat your best. It’s damn near impossible to tackle something like “Write a Novel”. Talk about overwhelm. But hitting a daily word quota? Sure. Anyone can do that. It doesn’t have to be words per day (though, as a fledgling writer, it’s not a bad one to start out with.) It might be:

  •  x number of story drafts per year
  • story submissions per month
  • queries per month
  • blog posts per year (or month, or even week, if you’re nuts. Hell, some people do a post a day and are pretty good about meeting that quota, though, I wonder whether quality gives way to quantity at that point. Do you really have some invaluable, mind-shattering insight that the world must know about every single day? I sure as hell don’t.)
  • writing books read per year
  • fiction books read per year

Etc., or all of the above.

And while we’re on the subject of Yours Truly… I think we can agree: what a dick. Always telling you you can’t do better.

Forget about beating other people—but feel free to beat the ever-loving pants off Yours Truly.

That prick.

7. Take a Look at the Big Picture

Sometimes we’re in the weeds and we can’t tell where we’re headed. This gives us anxiety. What’s it all for? Is there any end in sight? We feel overwhelm because we can’t connect our present-day actions to any desired outcome.

The answer, of course, is go climb a tree. Look at the map. Get some perspective.

A map, in the case of a writing career, might consist of setting some career goals and milestones, then tracing back the necessary actions to reach each one. Connect today with the future. Watch your anxiety melt.

Or it might consist of making an actual map, like a flowchart. Forget fancy flowchart programs. Take a big ass piece of paper and a pencil (yes, they still make these) and make a picture of the whole career.

What will you need to write in order to feel fulfilled as a writer? (Novels, stories, blogs, guest posts, magazine articles, etc.) What kind of support activities must you do for each (e.g., querying, subs, reading, networking, research, promotion, website maintenance, accounting, etc.) Divide and subdivide until you can see a map of the whole thing on one glance, and arrows indicating the connection between things.

Lo and behold, things don’t seem that overwhelming anymore, do they? After all, there‘s the whole plan right there one sheet of paper. It’s a lot to tackle, sure, but at least with a map you can see where you’re headed.

Beats slogging through the weeds, anyway.

8. When All Else Fails…

…just choose to put it all aside and write.

This is never a bad choice for a writer.

Sometimes we just have to get some words out.

Not your assignment. Not your editor’s deadline or that piece for your client. Just write whatever your brain is screaming at you to write. Whatever seems fun. You have things to say, stories to tell. Tell it to the keyboard. Enjoy it. Remind yourself why you started off on this crazy writing journey in the first place.

Sometimes I think the overwhelm comes from a teeny-tiny part of us that thinks we ought to be doing what we do best: creating.

Not tweeting, not blogging, not networking, not researching, not subbing, not synopsizing, not querying, not emailing your pesky editor.

All of those things are necessary, sure, but when we overemphasize them at the expense of sheer creation time, the writing brain gets a little anxious. It needs its story time.

If it doesn’t get it, then things start going a little Jack Torrance, don’t they?

(I know.)

I’ve had plenty of work days where I was focused on some necessary but vaguely unsatisfying task. But I’ve never had an unsatisfying day creating.

That’s the juice. That’s where the magic is.

Your career with all of it’s anxieties and worries will still be there tomorrow. Just for today, put a bookmark in it, ignore the career, and have some fun writing!

You can always go back to being overwhelmed tomorrow, if you really want to 🙂


If you haven’t figured out the theme here yet, it’s this: pay close attention to your brain and give it what it wants. Not the conscious brain. That’s the part responsible for screwing everything up. The subconscious, or deep-conscious—that’s the part to focus on.

At a deep enough level, you know what to focus on. The overwhelm creeps up on us when we ignore it.

I thought about titling this piece “How Not to Get Overwhelmed”. But that’s really not the point, is it? You’re going to be overwhelmed. It’s what you do in response to the overwhelm that matters.

If you’re in that place, hopefully this helps dig you out and gets you back on track.

Feel free to bookmark this and come back to it when the squirmies start creeping up on you again, and they will.

I’ll probably do the same in about, oh, 5 months and 29 days from now…

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