How To Deal With Overwhelm

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

You’re creative. You’re driven. You’re passionate about writing. You have endless ideas, a blog, a novel in the works, a growing writing career.

With that kind of epic creative charge, you feel like you should have seen more projects through to fruition by now… right?

But instead, you keep finding yourself sighing at the end of each week, consumed by a sense of overwhelm rather than a sense of accomplishment.

You’re all over the place.

You feel frustrated—maybe even jealous when you see other writers who “have their shit together”.

Why can’t you seem to make things happen?

There are many reasons an idea doesn’t become a finished project, but I believe one of the most common is overwhelm.

To deal with overwhelm, you have to take a close look at the way you’re living.

Let’s examine this modern epidemic from all angles, so we can get off the inspiration hamster wheel and start making moves. Here’s our best advice on how to beat overwhelm and start achieving your goals.

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Decode the creative curse

Most creative people get slammed with ideas as they move through the world on a daily basis.

If you’re a creative soul, you know this to be true.

You might have to bust out your notebook on the train to scrawl out a plot twist. You might be hoarding a cascade of blog post ideas in Evernote. You might walk face-first into a street sign because you’re daydreaming about sending that pitch.

Creating is what makes you feel alive, so you spend an enormous amount of brainpower coming up with things to create.

That “mental collage” step in the creative process is exhilarating and addicting.

And hey, it sounds innocent enough.

It even sounds like a romantic way to exist in this complicated world, right?

However, the creative curse rears its ugly head when you start focusing entirely on the dreaming, planning, and inspiration phase. When you fail to leap forward into that next (scary and messy) phase… which is to actually begin creating something.

Writer’s block?

Stage fright?

Anxiety in front of a blank canvas?

Shiny object syndrome? 

These are all forms of the resistance we are met with when we attempt to go from thinking about doing something to actually doing it.

It’s easier to stay trapped in the cycle of ideas and inspiration. It’s comfortable there. It’s exciting, without being risky.

But once you pick up a paintbrush, open a blank word doc or even publicly declare that you’re about to start a new project?

That’s when shit gets real.

That’s when it’s time to stop giving in to the seduction of sexy new ideas and focus on the one you chose to bring to life.

A creative life is a beautiful life, but the real joy is the satisfaction of a finished project.

So the question remains: how do we get out of our own way and overcome this curse?

How do we turn ideas into results?

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Empty your head

Overwhelm ruins perfectly good Sunday afternoons. It doesn’t want you to feel good about the progress you’ve made or the things you plan to do.

It wants you to freak out. Right now.

Because nothing is ever good enough, and there are a million other things that need your immediate attention.

Why do we cave to this destructive impulse?

Sometimes when I feel truly overwhelmed, I snap out of it and just start laughing at myself.

I wonder, “how is it that I’m allowing this feeling to derail my entire day? How can I let this prevent me from being productive when the source of the feeling comes from not being productive enough?”

It’s a useless feeling and it won’t serve you. It’ll only bite at your ankles while you try to pedal toward the finish line.

It’s hard to get a break from the relentless feeling of being overwhelmed, though, with the many obligations that rent space in your head shrieking for attention.

To alleviate this, here’s what I suggest:

Empty out your head one afternoon.

Set some time aside, open your notebook to a fresh page and sip a cup of tea. Patiently scrawl out every single thing that’s on your plate right now.

Marie Forleo calls this exercise “creating mental white space”. It sounds tedious, but it’s effective.

Write down everything. The big stuff, the small stuff, the paid stuff and the free stuff.

The last time I did this, it hit me: I was trying to do way, way too much.

I was stretched from here to the moon, thinking I could do it all, and do it well… but that’s why I wasn’t getting anything done.

And it wasn’t enough to realize it—I had to do something about it.

I ended up completely quitting one of my side jobs.

Yup, I took a hit on my income. But I created more time to focus on the things that really matter to me.

Not everyone can just drop a side gig. I get that. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re dedicating yourself to too many things.

You’re the only one that can do the curating.

For me, it was worth making less so I could spare some sanity for my passion projects.

This is a touchy subject because people wear “busy” like a badge of honor. They want to believe they’re trapped in this cycle of busyness.

But at some point, something has to give, whether it’s the amount of effort you bring to each task or the number of tasks itself.

I think most of us don’t realize how much we’ve actually committed to until we take a look at the full list! It can be an eye-opener.

And then, we need to ask ourselves what we’re willing to sacrifice.

“Try to reach everyone, and you won’t reach anyone. Try to do it all, and you won’t do anything.” You’ve heard this before. I know you didn’t discover the internet yesterday. It’s a popular self-help mantra.

But for real—are you using it?

What do you need to be focusing on right now to get where you want to be?

Hint: It can’t be more than one or (max) two things at a time, or you’ll fall right back into old patterns.

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Understand what drives you

No matter how intoxicating a project is, you’re less likely to see it through if it doesn’t align with your deepest desires. Beating overwhelm is sometimes just about focusing on your truest “why”.

And before we get any further, let me say this: desires are not rational impulses. Desires are not what you think you should be doing. They’re what you want more than anything else, at the very center of your being.

Whichever walk of life you hail from, you have specific drivers that motivate you to live (and create) a certain way.

Defying them can send you unknowingly into a tailspin of existential confusion.

These drivers shine through when it’s time to embark on a new creative journey of any kind, whether you’re publishing a blog post or a whole novel.

Some people spend their lives only understanding their drivers on the surface level. They think they’re propelled by money, acknowledgment, or the painfully ambiguous notion of “being successful”.

But what really drives you? Have you ever thought about it lately?

What really gets you out of bed when you’d rather sleep in? Beyond paying rent, satisfying your family, or impressing your peers—what makes you tick?

And have you ever wondered why you lean toward certain projects and not others?

For one reason or another, you’ll choose (or reject) opportunities based on deeper subconscious desires.

To be successful at something, you need that long-term desire on your side. It has to be attached to something real. Money, vanity and vague notions of “making it” aren’t enough to ride it out for the long haul. This is why get-rich-quick schemes never hold water.

So how can we understand what drives us and use it to our advantage?

I recommend another slightly tedious exercise to get right down to the core of your desires, so you can uproot and study them…

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Open up that notebook again and write down your ULTIMATE reason for working on whatever you’re working on right now.

Whether it’s a blog, a small business, a novel, a script… write down what you want to get out of it.

Why are you doing it at all?

Now, I don’t want to put words on your page, but for many people, the answer here might reflect the surface level of desire I mentioned before.

It could be money, notoriety, to grow your social following, or “so a lot of people will read it”, or maybe even “so I can finally be a published author!”

The next step is to look at your answer and once again, ask “but WHY?”

WHY do I want to be a published author?

WHY do I want people to follow me on social?

WHY do I want a lot of money?

You’ll then write that answer down and repeat the exercise.

This can be a mentally draining task if your deepest desires are buried beneath a lifetime of conditioning and confusion. If you’re honest with yourself, though, it can lead to an incredible amount of clarity.

When I did this, my ultimate answer was “freedom”.  More specifically, freedom to spend my time as I wish.

Up one layer, you’d find desires related to location independence.

Up one layer from that you’d find desires related to financial stability, and so on.

The things that drive us can shape our lives, and understanding them better will allow you to use them to your advantage.

I believe using these desires in positive ways can propel you toward being a more fulfilled, conscious creative person.

Try this exercise out for yourself. You might be surprised at what you uncover.

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Respect your energy levels

Being inspired to do something and having the energy to do it are two very different things.

I’ve confused these two for most of my life, leading to lots of ugly-crying in front of my computer and years of not getting the results I wanted.

When you’re trying to beat overwhelm and nothing is working, it’s worth bringing it down to the energy level. Maybe you can’t “beat” it after all!

The truth is, getting hyped up about a project in your mind tricks you into thinking you can get that same rush while you work.

For sure, the initiation of a project comes with a certain degree of “hell yeah, this is happening! I’m doing it! I’m a doer!”

But then… when you hit your very first snag, that high deflates and you start questioning everything.

Sound familiar?

That’s because the mental high of doing something is not parallel to the often taxing reality of creating.

I went to fashion school, and I’d constantly struggle with this discrepancy between being excited about work and actually having the capacity for it. As a result, I was an overly-inspired mess. I was always late, rushing to finish things, sewing until 5AM.

I’d be thrilled with the process of creating something until I hit a snag or made a mistake, and I’d completely melt down, doubting that I was capable of doing it at all.

Eventually, I learned that inspiration is a great motivator, but a terrible planner.

You can’t base your workload on how excited you are about something, or you’ll have so much on your plate that you’ll never get it done.

You have to get real about the hours you’ve got in a day, and how you really want to use them.

Rather than cram your day with work, balance your routine with equal parts hustling, self-care, friends/family time and leisure.

To be totally honest, I still struggle with this today!

I love the rush of excitement that comes with collaborating, writing, creating, etc. You might even say I’m battling an addiction to it.

It wasn’t until I learned how to meticulously reverse-engineer a project (something I picked up as a copywriter for large campaigns) that I understood how to balance my time and adjust my commitments.

So, long story short, be honest with yourself about how much you can handle.

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Make peace with progress

Something funny happened to me this week.

I woke up one morning tangled in my fluffy new comforter, basking in the glorious sunshine with birds singing outside my window.

Total bliss.

Within an hour of standing up and stretching out, however, my brain switched into “omg, I have sooo much to do today! Let’s go, let’s go!” mode.

My mood crashed, quick.

I snapped at the people around me and acted impatient at the grocery store, wrote emails frantically instead of thoughtfully, panicked over my portfolio, and even scoffed at another writer’s video on YouTube. (The writer in question is awesome and I was totally projecting.)

Basically, I went from lovely chirping birds to furious keyboard clatter in a matter of minutes… and I couldn’t snap out of it.

By mid-afternoon, my overwhelm temporarily fizzled out long enough for me to regroup.

I saw the sun spilling into my messy apartment. I saw groceries that needed to be put away, my definitive list of “things I MUST get done this weekend”, and an inbox full of yet unanswered emails.

I saw blessings and curses cohabitating all around me, and realized… it’s okay.

It’s okay to be a work in progress.

It’s okay to have a lot of “things to do”.

It’s okay to not get it all done before Monday morning rolls around again—whether or not you have a day job.

I decided I was going to take a break from overwhelm, intentionally.

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After taking a walk, making some fresh coffee and doing some sketching in my brown paper notebook, I felt mentally restored and eager to get to work.

I sat down, fully conscious that my entire life is a work in progress, and chose one single thing to do, giving it all of my attention and love.

Browser tabs? Closed ’em. It was time to stop worrying about my entire to-do list and hone in on the task at hand.

Taking time away from your must-do-this-right-now mindset is necessary to stay sane and keep overwhelm at bay. If you think about everything you need to do all the time, you’ll never have the mental space for the first step.

Are you operating this way right now? Be aware of it, and when you catch yourself, reel it back in. Focus on one thing.

Be OKAY with the rest of it being in limbo and in progress.

Be OKAY with many moving parts.

Life is messy. Creative lives? Even messier. It’s all good.

I’m not sure where we developed this idea that crossing things off the to-do list is the key to happiness, but it isn’t serving us. Let’s try to appreciate the process and approach our goals with a little more ease.

Gary Vaynerchuk says this all the time: Get obsessed with the process. Fall in love with the process. It’s so much sweeter to enjoy the journey of any creative project than to obsess over the outcome.

Not only does it put you in a good mood while you work, but it frees you up focusing on every loose end in your life.

Permission to enjoy the process is permission to accept that progress is the ultimate goal—not the finish line. Ya with me?

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Like any other major shift in your life, learning how to beat overwhelm will be an ongoing process. It’s something we all have to remain conscious of—especially in the age of information anxiety.

I mean, even while writing this post, I started feeling overwhelmed by phone notifications and thinking about my to-do list.

The struggle is real!

But by taking a closer look at your life, your desires, and your own creative process, you can reduce the chaos and overcome overwhelm, all while enjoying the ride.

I’d love to hear your feedback on this. Drop a comment below if you tried any of the exercises or have your own ideas to share.

Michelle Christina Larsen is the Co-founder of Day Job Optional. Strong coffee, strong wi-fi, and absurd inside jokes are some of her favorite things. While a self-proclaimed side project addict, writing remains the ultimate focus of her life. After a decade of freelance writing in the fashion industry, she's teaching fellow freelancers how to dominate their niches and make full-time incomes online.

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