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

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Comments

  1. I know that feeling of looking at the whole project at once and thinking I will never get it all done. My Dad gave me a great piece of advice. “Start with what you know how to do; then work on the ones you don’t know how to do. Chances are, by the time you finish what you know how to do, the project will be done”. I have found it to be good advice in many situations. I remember having lunch with a friend in a town fairly far away from where I lived. When we came out, I had a flat tire. Of course I wished it would magically repair itself, but it didn’t. I knew I had to call AAA, that took some time. They came out and put the donut tire on so I could drive it. Then I had to find a gas station and drive on the donut tire to get there. Then I had to wait for the tire to be repaired. I had to keep telling myself I had to do it one step at a time and it wasn’t hard, just uncomfortable.

    I still have to talk myself through things – I keep telling myself there is an end to it, it won’t last forever and I am capable of handing the situation. Much the same as what you wrote, just in a different way. I like to see practical, every day life examples to really get to the “I know that I know” stage.

    • Jenna says:

      Lee, that’s great, and so true. Taking one step at a time helps us get there. It’s so much easier when we just think about the next thing, then the next thing, then the next. One of my early coaches used to say, “The first step is always illuminated.” In other words, we can usually see what the first step is. Then from there, we can see the next “first” step.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Priya says:

    I call it a quit for a few days. Give myself time to recharge by making some art, walking or listening to music. Then organically the things I love and want start appearing in my mind again. I make a list what I’ll work on and start again.

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