How To Deal with Overwhelm

Hailey Kean


“I have so much to do, yet I only have the energy to eat, sleep and watch TV!  What is wrong with me?”

If you’ve ever found yourself diving into a carton of blueberry ripple ice cream, or (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, avoiding 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.

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.

The knowledge that you’ve put it 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 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.


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.

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.

The key:  Regain control.

If you’re already at the point of overwhelm, then you don’t have time to deal with the upper right quadrant stuff (Non-Urgent, but Important).  You have upper left (Urgent and Important) and lower left (Urgent and non-Important) crises screaming at you.

This is where you need to switch to crisis management, while also working toward shifting to the upper quadrant stuff.

The four step process to stop the crazies.

1. Write everything down.

I’m married to a man who keeps everything in his head.  I mean, everything.  He doesn’t use a Contact manager, or a calendar, or task manager.  He plots his novels in his head, too.

However, when he’s feeling the tension of too-much-to-do-too-little-time, even he writes everything down.

The act of writing everything down has two outcomes:  a) You get everything out of your head and don’t have to worry you’ll forget anything.  b) You can see it all in one place and organize it.

I use a Word file and my keyboard.  You might prefer pen and paper, or a notebook, or Evernote.  It doesn’t matter how you purge the worry beads, so long as you get them out of your head.

Write down everything.  Even the stupidest little niggles (“My shoe lining is coming loose”).

The act of writing everything down will give you a sense of relief, because you’re doing something.  You’re grasping the nettle.

Just don’t stop there.

2. Sort the priorities

Once you think you’ve got everything on paper, start sorting.  You’ll likely remember items later, that you can add to the list as you go.  Don’t stall here because you’re afraid you’ve forgotten something.

How do you sort things out?

It’s up to you how you group your items.   If you’ve never done this before, try pushing them into their quadrants, per the chart, above.

How they get sorted isn’t as important as what you do with them when they are.

At the very least, sort your list out into items that are keeping you awake at night, versus less critical emergencies.

The aim is to decide which tasks you must pay attention to first, and which can drift for a few hours (days/weeks), while you put out fires.  The fires are those tasks that, if you don’t do something about them immediately, will get you arrested or fined or force you to start job-hunting or move back in with your parents.

3. Put out the fires

Even among the currently burning tasks, there will be one or two that are critical.  Deal with them.  Now.  Don’t put it off.

Then deal with the next fire and move down the list.

How?  You quite likely know what you need to do to put out the fires.

  • Have a (probably painful) conversation with the tax department and set up a payment schedule.
  • Get the slow leak in your tire fixed, then keep your tires properly inflated and regularly checked.
  • Change your book’s price on your dashboard–then write a checklist of book retailers who carry your books, so when you need to change the price, you don’t overlook any of them.
  • Deal with the trolls, get the reviews removed (if you can), and move on.

There will be some negative consequences that you cannot avoid.  Tax fines.  Interest charges.  Debt collectors.  Sucky credit rating.  Unimpressed readers.  Lost sales.

Work to minimize the damage, and accept what you cannot avoid.  Acknowledge that the shit is absolutely your fault….but temporary, because you have no intention of reaching this point ever again.

4. Find time to deal with the underlying problems.

Once all the major fires are out, you should experience a great rush of energy and motivation.  You will no longer feel like diving into a barrel of vodka from a great height.

This is the perfect time, when your motivation is high, to ease into long-term management of your priorities.

Start shifting your work from the Urgent side to the Non-Urgent side.

This is where daily habits and schedules and fussy time management will help.  It will take time to train yourself to attend to what feels like mundane and trivial tasks, but this is the guts of an indie author’s workload.

Non-urgent but Important tasks are the stuff of every day.  They’re accomplished because they become habits, and items on checklists, and minor five-minute tasks that are completed almost without noticing…that in the long term, will keep you productive, sane, and away from the ice cream.

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