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Dealing with overwhelm

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to deal with overwhelm.

Some days, I can feel myself skirting up against the cliff that is total burnout, only to shift myself back on course at the last minute with a weekend off with friends, or taking a long bike ride in the middle of the afternoon.

As my freelance business picks up, I’ve also come up against some pretty pressing deadlines in my fiction biz – which means that my usual strategy of dropping the fiction to accommodate client projects won’t work.

A very regimented productivity and scheduling system allows me to make it all work pretty seamlessly, and, guys, I’m now taking weekends off from client work – an amazing novelty after my first 18 months as a freelance writer!

But overwhelm is still a constant companion, always hanging out in the wings and ready to pounce.

Since it’s been on my mind, I’ve been writing about it a lot recently on GovLoop.

I don’t feel like I have a complete solution just yet, but I do feel like I’m circling closer to one.

How I deal with overwhelm

Step 1. Write down EVERYTHING I need to deal with – from ‘hem the curtains’ to your most pressing deadline. Just get it out of my head. This in the absolute first step – otherwise I get so stressed out by the sheer load of things that I won’t be able to concentrate and accomplish what I need to.

Step 2. Take my most pressing deadlines and prioritize them – by work load, by due date, whatever.

Step 3. Figure out which ones are negotiable. Are any of these projects less pressing than others? If I need to push things back, I talk to those clients and see if I can create a more realistic deadline for myself. This is a last resort for me, since I hate hate HATE missing deadlines, but if I know a client won’t have time to look at it for a few days anyway I’ll sometimes ask for an extension. I’ve found most people are pretty understanding.

Step 4. Understand which items are urgent-must-be-done-today (like write a blog post for a client, or respond to an email), and which are important to my life’s work, but could be put off until tomorrow (like write 1000 words).

Step 5. Schedule those important things to happen first, because I know I’ll always find time for the urgent things. But I won’t always make time for the important ones if I don’t do it first thing. (If I’m on the edge of overwhelm, however, I’ll scrap Step 5 in favor of Step 6.)

Step 6 (optional). Figure out which things are causing the most amount of stress and anxiety. Do them first, even if they’re completely not related to your real priorities. For me, they’re often things like “clean the kitchen” or “pay these bills” or “rearrange the office and figure out what smells like rotting bananas.”

I set a timer for 30 minutes and sprint through as many of these items as I can, and when the timer goes off, I take a deep breath and try to assess if I’m still as stressed out by life, the universe, and everything. If doing the dishes has made me feel better, I go back to Step 5 and try to tackle actual work that needs to be done.


How do you deal with being overwhelmed? I know I’m not alone as a writer who’s day job is also writing. How do you figure out what needs to get done first, and how do you make sure your most important work actually happens?

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