Writing even when overwhelmed

As writers and creatives with a certain sensitivity to life, we can get easily overwhelmed, which can be paralyzing, deeply uncomfortable, and hard to break free from.

Let’s talk about why that happens and what we can do about it.

There are a few different ways overwhelm happens, and they inform us about how to handle the overwhelm, so it’s useful to look at what’s gotten us overwhelmed in the first place.

1. We get overwhelmed by the size of a project.

When we’re taking on a big project (like writing a novel, for instance), if we look at the entirety of the thing, it can be overwhelming just to contemplate, let alone begin it. I’m reminded of the joke about how to eat an elephant. If we look at the whole thing, it feels impossible. But when we think about taking “one bite at a time”, we can begin to see how to start going about it.

Solutions

  • Break it down into component parts. For example, with a writing project, we can start with brainstorming, or an outline. Then we can tackle one scene at a time.
  • Make a list of everything you’ll want to do — then put it away. Focus on one thing at a time and stop thinking about the big picture, or you’ll make yourself crazy.
  • Look at working in small increments of time, as small as 5 to 15 minutes a day. It’s quite surprising what we can accomplish in these little chunks. I wrote my screenplay Rift in 15 to 30 minute increments, and it was thrilling to see the page count creeping up, day after day.

2. We get plain old overstimulated.

If you fall on the highly sensitive side of the spectrum, you’re more sensitive to stimulation of any kind, and have a lower threshold for stimulation than the rest of the population. This means that you’re more likely to get overwhelmed earlier than your peers, which can feel a little crazy making when everyone else seems to be able to handle it just fine, thank you very much. But overwhelm from overstimulation is just as paralyzing as the other types.

Solutions

  • Remove yourself from the source of the stimulation.
  • Give yourself time to recover.
  • Have a repertoire of soothing practices to get grounded, balanced, and present again.
  • Notice that writing will often help you feel more grounded, balanced, and present again.
  • Plan ahead to keep stimulation at a manageable level in the future and build in recovery time.

3. We get overwhelmed by life.

Then there’s the “garden variety” overwhelm we experience in our busy world. There’s always more to do, more to take on, more to handle. Someone always needs something, there’s a project that’s due, our kids are sick, you name it.

And it can be easy to let something like a writing habit or a passion project fall to the wayside in the midst of all that. But the cost is far higher than you might expect. It turns out that feeding the passion we feel and fulfilling the commitment to our deeper selves is critical fuel we need to actually handle the overwhelm. Even at a time when “one more thing” feels like way too much, putting ourselves first — just like we put our oxygen masks on first — is key to staying grounded and sane when the going gets tough.

Solutions

As far as solutions go, it depends.

First ask yourself, is this an ongoing pattern in my life? If so, the answer is to look closely at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, to see if there is anything you can let go of, delegate, or defer. Be willing to keep your passion project at the top of the list, and let go of other obligations. Your first obligation is to yourself. Choose wisely.

On the other hand, if you’re experiencing an unusual period of intense work, simply “contract” your expectations on your project to an attainable level. For example, write for 15 minutes instead of an hour, or pick out the tiniest piece of your project to focus on.

  • Be willing to look at what you might need to let go of.
  • Contract your project expectations to a reasonable, attainable level.
  • Remember the value and importance of feeding your soul’s passion.
  • Build up to more over time.

4. We get overwhelmed by major life stresses and events.

Beyond the “ordinary” level of overwhelm we feel in our day to day lives comes the extraordinary kind of stress and overwhelm we can feel when a major life event dominates our experience, like a parent being hospitalized, a major relationship upheaval, the death of a loved one, or personal surgeries or health issues.

During times like these, pretty much everything drops off the radar that isn’t “critical path” to handling the major life event. In my opinion, that’s okay, especially during the true crisis times. But once things start to settle down into a “new normal”, see if you can find your way to doing the contracted version of your project I mentioned under number 2, above.

Solutions

  • Give yourself time and space to deal with the major event.
  • Return to the project as soon as you reasonably can, at a minimal level of engagement.
  • Build up to more over time.

5. We get overwhelmed because we’re burnt out.

When we are creatively (and energetically) burned out, we can get overwhelmed by the simplest things. Keeping the house clean, dealing with paperwork, and handling the basics of daily living can make us want to crawl back into bed and hide.

Usually this happens for a couple of reasons, including dealing with the ongoing high level of expectations we have in our culture about what we should be able to do in any given day (see #2, above), and dealing with major life events (see #3, above), but it can also include the creative backlash that comes from pushing ourselves to the point of burnout.

In other words, if we’re working crazy hours to meet a deadline, we become exhausted when it’s done, and no surprise there either. But few of us allow ourselves to take time off when that happens.

Solutions

  • Plan to take at least one solid day off after a big push, maybe a few more.
  • If you’re creatively burnt out, give some thought to how you’ll refill your creative well with interesting and inspiring ideas as you recover. My favorites: museums, art stores, toy stores, TED talks.
  • If you’re energetically burnt out (which usually goes hand-in-hand with creative burnout), seriously ramp up your self care for a while. You’ve just taxed yourself and you need time to bounce back.
  • Keep the writing going by doing morning pages during this time, or if you already have a next project to work on, put in the minimum amount of time on it and then take the rest of the day to renew. But do it first, so you can fully enjoy the time without the low level of stress and anxiety that procrastination creates.
  • Transition yourself to a regular writing habit so you won’t have to work so intensely in a big burst all at the end (if you need help with this the Writer’s Circle may be just the ticket for you.)

Your turn

What works for you? How do you deal with overwhelm? We’d love to hear from you in the comments on the blog.

Warmly,

 Jenna

You may also be interested in:

 

7 Steps to Recovering From Creative Burnout

Over the last few weeks I’ve been writing about creative depletion and the cycle of creative burnout, and creating a cycle of creative renewal.

Today it’s time to talk about recovering from creative burnout.

As I said to one of my Circle members the other day, it’s a matter of rebuilding trust with yourself and coaxing yourself back to the table.

So how do we do that?

7 recovery steps

1. First, acknowledge the exhaustion and aversion to the work that’s developed.

It’s real. It’s normal, and it’s totally understandable. 

Burnout happens from pushing ourselves too hard for too long and expecting that creative well to remain topped off. Doesn’t happen.

2. Next, make a plan for recovery that includes down time.

…even if it’s in the smallest of moments every day. Give yourself permission to close your eyes in a comfortable chair for a few moments allows your mind to let go, and relax. You’re exhausted, you need to rest.

Ideally, you’ll also want to schedule some full days off — and vacations, if possible — where you do nothing that’s not just for you. Over the last month, I’ve taken two full days, mid-week, just to put my feet up and watch movies, eat great food, get some body work done, and saunter through the day at my own pace.

In other words, go for full out indulgence from time-to-time. You’ll work harder, better, and faster, when you’re rested. Not before.

3. When you feel ready, remind yourself why you love your craft.

Just today I was watching some clips from my favorite show ever, Firefly, and felt an upwelling of inspiration and passion come surging back through me.

You do love this work, you’ve just temporarily forgotten why.

Figure out what your jump-starts are, and go back to them when you need one.

4. Don’t expect new ideas to come flowing back to you immediately.

Give yourself time and space to recovery, trusting that your creativity will return. Remember: you’re not blocked, you’re exhausted.

When my writers don’t know what to write and don’t have ideas flowing, I encourage them to start with a practice of morning pages (Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way* is the seminal book on the subject).

5. Find ways to regain your inspiration.

Go on “Artist’s Dates” (again, see The Artist’s Way*), take yourself out for walks, movies, book signings, and speaking events. Consider attending events that have nothing to do with your craft. It’s amazing how other topics, knowledge, and ideas can reignite your own originality.

6. When you feel ready, make a baby steps plan to get back on track with your work.

In my Writer’s Circle, we recommend working in the smallest possible increment of time that you know without question, that you will actually do. It’s okay if it seems ridiculously easy (that’s the point, in fact). You’ll slowly build back up to more over time.

7. Give thought to how to prevent burnout next time.

In other words, plan ahead. Learn how to pace yourself properly and deal with the natural resistance and procrastination that comes up around creative work so that you don’t put yourself right back where you’ve started.

If you do get into a situation where you’ll be pushing to meet a deadline, think about how you can counter-balance the effort on the other side.

The bottom line

Creative recovery requires patience, permission, and a great deal of self-care. You, and your work, deserve it. Please give it to yourself.

Thanks for reading!

Click here to tell me what you think. I always love to receive your feedback.

And Happy Thanksgiving to those of you celebrating here in the U.S. and abroad. I’m grateful for each and every one of you. Thank you for being part of my life.

Warmly,

 Jenna

You may also be interested in: