What to Do When You’re Overwhelmed

Modern life forces you to make impossible choices. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the stuff that needs doing. When you get overwhelmed, your anxiety level rises, you lose traction, you get even more behind, and you feel more and more overwhelmed.

Writers are very susceptible to getting overwhelmed. Besides everything else that Normal People do, we take on the gargantuan task of writing a novel, getting it published, and then marketing it. This is a lonely, difficult journey of a thousand miles, even for those lucky few who make lots of money at it. For the other 99%, it’s even harder. 

I learned a simple trick years ago for dealing with overwhelm. I call it the “Overwhelm Exercise” and I use it whenever things seem especially bad. (About two or three times a year.)

The Overwhelm Exercise

Do these steps in order: 

  1. Write down every single thing that’s causing you to feel overwhelmed. You can do this on paper or on your computer, whichever is more convenient. Write everything. Keep going until you’ve said it all. You don’t need to put it in any special order. Just spill your guts. Completely. Keep writing until you’ve cleared it all out. All the mess is on the page. It’s still a big mess, but your head is clear. 
  2. Mark ONLY those items you could reasonably get done today. Don’t go overboard. Just find those few things that are small enough for today. You can either color-code them or circle them or mark them with an asterisk. 
  3. Mark ONLY those you could reasonably get done this week, using a different mark. Again, don’t get too ambitious. You’re in a big hole, so set yourself a goal that you can achieve. You can color-code these in a different color, or mark them with a rectangle, or mark them with two asterisks. 
  4. Give yourself permission to deal with everything else later. Next week or next month. But not today and not even this week. Write this down. “I have permission to ONLY do the marked tasks this week.”
  5. Collect all the tasks you marked for today onto a fresh list. It should be small. It should be achievable. Title it, “My Today List.”
  6. Collect all the tasks you marked for this week onto a separate list. This will be a bit bigger. Once again, don’t get too aggressive. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Title this list, “My This-Week List.”
  7. For today, do everything on the Today List. You constructed it to be doable in one day, so do it. When you finish the list, reward yourself with a break. You reached your goal for the day! Enjoy that good feeling. Don’t spoil it by moving the goal posts. You are done until tomorrow. 
  8. Tomorrow, choose out a few tasks from the This Week List and make a new Today List. Again, make sure it’s doable. You’ve been beating yourself up for too long because you’ve got impossible goals. You need a few days of setting possible goals. 
  9. For the rest of the week, continue making doable Today Lists. Don’t crush your spirit by demanding too much of yourself. That way lies dragons. 

Where You’ll Be Next Week

By next week, that original horrible list will have a number of small and mid-size tasks crossed off. It will be much less ferocious-looking. It will still be bad, but it’ll be less bad. If you still feel overwhelmed, repeat the same exercise. But you should be less overwhelmed next week. You’ll be getting some traction. You’ll have some victories under your belt. Maybe small victories, but a win is a win.

Remember that modern life is set up to keep throwing more stuff at you until you break. When you catch your breath a little, think about that some. Can you make some decisions on things you can just say no to? 

Life is the art of saying no to most stuff, so you can say yes to the things that matter most. 

Have a good day.

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Author: Randy Ingermanson