How To Deal with Overwhelm – 2022 Edition – Part 1

This is an update of the March 4, 2018 post. The updated Part 2 of this post is here.


While technically an update, this post—on one of the more important topics on the site—also reflects the challenges of our current times. As a result, I had to split the post into two parts. 

Oh, we are so challenged in 2022!

Thanks to the pandemic, which is in its third year and shows no sign of slowing down, we are facing tests and situations that we never dreamed of only a few years ago.  From a global recession that is nudging toward a depression, supply chain issues that leave us scrambling for reasonably-price wood, herbs & spices (what’s that about?), decent fresh veggies (a flood in British Columbia left our supermarket produce shelves empty for weeks), and of all things:  house siding.  Our house is currently wearing the latest in housewrap, with great patches of old siding missing.  We ordered the new siding over a year ago.  We’re still waiting.

Depending on where you are on the globe, your challenges to keep food on the table and pay for it could well be different…but you will be facing challenges.

Then there’s the mental impact of on-going lockdowns, masking protocols, immunizations and no social life.

If you’re still working a day job, there’s the issue of working from home…or not.  Going to a worksite involves different risks—exposure to COVID-19 is at the top of the list.

We’re all going a bit stir-crazy with restricted social gatherings, or none at all. 

While all that is going on, indie authors are trying to write and publish at a reasonable rate.

If you find yourself staring at your computer screen sometimes and wondering “why bother?”, you’re not alone.  When the pistachio ice cream calls your name, when Netflix binges seem like a great idea, when sleeping seems like a sensible way to spend your entire day, you know something is wrong, but you can’t seem to get out of your own way.

If you’ve ever found yourself (re)reading every Charles Dickens novel in a two-week binge, or any other activity that isn’t what you know you should be doing right now, there’s a good chance you’re taking a dive because you’re overwhelmed.

When your mind is juggling competing priorities and too little time to spare, it becomes easier to not think about everything that is screaming at you.  Self-medicating with food or other indulgences imparts a false sense of calm.

Unfortunately, anything you do to avoiding dealing with the overwhelm only increases the internal pressure, because in the back of your mind, you know you’re only putting things off.  The longer you avoid doing anything, the worse it gets.

Overwhelm has deep causes

When you reach this level of passive resistance, it can feel like it has come out of nowhere, as if the clouds gathered overnight and dumped on you.

In fact, overwhelm is a result of long term issues;  faulty scheduling and time management, or poor crisis management, or simply a lack of motivation because your goals and ambitions aren’t true to you…there’s a number of deep-seated causes that can add to the creep.  And currently, the pandemic restrictions and temporary make-do work-arounds those restrictions have forced us to live with are now in the same category:  Long term issues that have reached a crisis point because we’ve put off dealing with them.

Put your hand up if you’re putting up with a lot of work-arounds, temporary arrangements, and stand-by status, waiting for things to get back to normal?

Okay, you can put your hand down now. 

We’ve all been hanging on, waiting for things to get better, while really wishing things would go back to the way they were.

But we can’t go back.  And waiting for the “new normal” is adding stress, because it’s taking so freaking long to get here. 

But this state of overwhelm can occur even when there is no pandemic to blame. 

The creep is insidious.  You might put off a task one day because you genuinely (or not) don’t have time.   Say, not filing your tax receipts.  The next day, it’s easier to put off that tasks once more, because nothing bad happened the first time you shunted it aside.  This is particularly pernicious for indie authors, because we answer to no one, in the short term.  Long term, though, the consequences of putting things off can be disastrous.

In the meantime, though, the knowledge that you’ve put tasks off, though, lingers in the back of your mind, adding one drop of mental pressure.

So you determine you will do all the filing.  Tomorrow.  But tomorrow is already busy.  So you squeeze and juggle and if you do get the tax filing done, you maybe put off writing your cover blurb, instead.  There’s a second drop of pressure.

The fissures start to run, even though there’s no dire consequences that will alert you that your foundations are cracking.  Life ticks along.  No one screams at you because your filing isn’t done.  No one cares if you haven’t got your blurb done yet, because you’re an indie author and there are no formal deadlines.

The overwhelm arrives because you fail to notice the creep.  You can fool yourself into thinking you’re handling everything life is throwing at you just fine, thank you, until you drop the ball and suddenly, balls are bouncing and rolling everywhere.  The tax department schedules an audit.  And you miss your release deadline because the cover and e-book aren’t ready to go…which means you miss the Amazon 30 day release window and your sales drop off the cliff.

As a result, your monthly cheque is going to be short, and you needed the extra for advertising for the previous book in the series, and those sales slide, because there’s no follow-up book and it’s older than 90 days, which pushes it under the fold on Amazon searches…

You look at the disaster:  Sinking sales, the tax department holding out their hand because you can’t find receipts, your word count for the next book barely creeping along because you can’t concentrate…and you reach for the TV remote and zone out, instead.

Who can blame you, right?

Almost everything is in the upper right quadrant for Indies.

I’m sure you’ve seen this box before.  It was designed by Stephen Covey, for his classic time management book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

A quick recap:

Urgent but not important.

The bottom left of the quadrant is where life’s crises go:  flat tires, burst water pipes.

They’re irritants that must be dealt with now to stave off further consequences.  They’re the stop-everything-and-do-this-now stuff.

It might seem like these emergencies are out to get you, but consider:  Did the tire go flat because you failed to check air pressure regularly?  Or did you ignore the warning light on your dashboard because it’s always on?

Did the water pipe burst because you’ve been putting off getting the pipes cleaned and now the leaf litter from summer has backed them up and they froze?

Some emergencies are truly unexpected.  Getting rear ended, for example.

Some, though, are the result of putting off non-urgent tasks that are minor, but have long-term consequences when you don’t do them– and I’ll get to that quadrant in a minute.

There is very little writing-related business that fits into this quadrant.  Everything we do as indies is important to one degree or another.

Not Urgent and Not Important.

  • Finishing all thirteen seasons of Supernatural.
  • Napping…again.
  • Finding the perfect task manager.
  • Rearranging your playlist on iTunes.
  • Hanging out on social networks and gossiping (and you know if you’re being productive or just killing time).

These are the types of choices you make when you’re overwhelmed.  They’re mindless and kill the pain of having to deal with everything else.  There’s a dopamine hit when you do them, which makes them just a little bit addictive and far sweeter and attractive than the necessary, but minor tasks you want to dodge.

You absolutely need downtime in your life.  But there’s a sharp difference between relaxation and avoidance.

If you can indulge in non-urgent, trivial activities without thoughts of “I should be doing ____” nagging you, then you’re relaxing.  Enjoy.  You deserve the break.

Urgent and Important

  • Dealing with review trolls.  Diving into your KDP dashboard to change prices on a book because you got an email from Amazon about a lower price elsewhere.
  • Spending two days solid writing 10+K words, because your deadline is staring you in the eyes.
  • Prepping your tax return.

If you have a day job, then nearly everything you do during the day fits into this category, because what you do has been dictated by others, and those tasks have deadlines imposed upon them.  The deadlines have real consequences if you miss them.  The consequences could be mild — a sigh from your supervisor — to severe — getting fired.

Indie writing-related Urgents can also have artificial deadlines (your release schedule) or real ones (tax deadlines).

However, just like Urgent-but-Unimportant crises, many Urgent-and-Important tasks may only be urgent because you put them off.

Consider:  Did Amazon tap you on the shoulder because you forgot to change the price on Amazon when you updated it everywhere else?  (Tip:  build checklists for production tasks like price changes.)

Are you crunched to hit your first draft deadline because you skipped days (weeks) of writing?

Have you put off organizing your receipts for the entire year and now you have to sort them out in a massive three-day caffeine-supported panic?

And sometimes, you just get blind-sided by the unexpected.  Review trolls, for example.  Or, on the plus side:  Massive sales spikes or traffic that threatens to topple your site unless you manage the blip.

As you get control of your time and learn how to schedule it better and, most importantly, learn how to deal with the upper right quadrant tasks, nearly everything you do as an indie writer will shift over to that quadrant.

Not Urgent, But Important.

This is where you should spend most of your time.  These are the everyday tasks, that are so easy to blow off.

  • Writing x,xxx words every day.
  • Filing receipts.
  • Completing cover art request forms and sending them to the artist.
  • Writing the back cover blurb.
  • Updating your bio.
  • Backlist review and updating.
  • Checking sales links.
  • Production tasks.  Promo tasks.  Blogging.  Networking.

Because you are self-directed, everything you do is a choice.  No one yells at you if you don’t do them.

The long-term consequences, though, are horrible.   If you’re already writing full-time, imagine being forced to get another day job.  If you’re still working the day job, imagine being stuck there another ten years.

Putting off these non-urgent, important tasks is how you get to overwhelm.

Next week:  How to deal with the four quadrants and other strategies for our new times.

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