How many times have you walked away from a writing project you wanted to do because you had no idea where to start?
You have a great idea for a novel, but you don’t know how to structure such a long writing project. Or, you’re thinking about starting a blog, but there’s too much to figure out. Or perhaps you’re toying with the idea of joining a writing class, but you’re scared you might not follow through with it?
Writing is a very complicated and intimidating craft. There are so many moving parts in all types of writing, so much to keep up with, so much to think about, it’s amazing anyone is able to get any writing done at all.
If you want to write, but are feeling too scared or confused, it’s because you’re suffering from overwhelm. Overwhelm is a terrible feeling. It’s one that feels so bad, we’ll do anything to avoid it, like give up on pursuing our dreams or procrastinating on a project that really intrigues us.
Overwhelm is an inevitable part of a writer’s life, but learning how to deal with it is a skill. Here are the 7 basic steps for conquering overwhelm and learning how to get past it in order to write!
1. Decide Ahead of Time
Deciding ahead of time—when used correctly—is magic. When you decide ahead of time that you’re going to do something, it’s as good as done.
How many times have you vowed to yourself you’d do something (like sit down to work on your novel for instance) but when the time came to get it done, you flaked out?
Deciding ahead of time takes away any chance of not following through. When you decide ahead of time, you’re using your Watcher self to control and manage your Thinking self. The reason this technique is so effective is because it keeps your Thinking self—the part of you that talks you out of meeting your own goals or giving up on something you really want—in check.
When you decide ahead of time, you do what you say you’re going to do—regardless of how you feel when it’s time to grind—even if you really, really don’t want to.
Deciding ahead of time doesn’t mean you’ll consider it when the time comes to work. It means you’re working, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if you have a headache, feel too tired, or a better offer came up. You made the decision and you’re keeping the commitment.
To help you successfully decide ahead of time and then honor that commitment to yourself, it’s important to schedule the time when you’re going to do the nitty gritty work.
The best way to set yourself up for success when it comes to your work schedule is to schedule your free time first. Schedule your lunch break, the end of your work day, and your days off before scheduling your work time. These breaks are extremely important. Do not discount them. Taking recharging breaks actually allows you to work more quickly and efficiently in the long run.
Next, schedule your work time. Be realistic about how long it will take you to do something, but also be strict with yourself. If you want to create an entire blog post—from the initial draft stage to the final product—don’t give yourself only 30 minutes to do it—that’s simply impossible. But also, don’t give yourself a whole week to do it because that will create time for procrastination. Make your deadline tight, but feasible. Then, get those work sessions on the calendar and treat them like they’re holy (they are!).
2. Tackle any “I’m confused” thoughts
One of the biggest breakthroughs for me (not just professionally, but in my personal life as well) happened when I learned that confusion is optional.
What?? Yes, it’s true. We’ve been taught that confusion is inevitable, normal, and expected. When we hear ourselves say “I’m confused” or “I don’t know”, we believe it and let those lies continue to run through our mind.
But here’s the truth—confusion is an indulgent emotion. It’s completely and utterly unnecessary in every single situation. But big caveat here: There’s a major difference between not yet possessing the knowledge of how to do something and being undecided about what to do to the point of inaction.
For instance, it’s perfectly fine and fueling to want to start a blog but not know the technical steps of how to get it started. It’s not fine to be in limbo about whether to start a blog, going back and forth about making the wrong decision or making a mistake, causing you to do absolutely nothing.
Do you see the difference? It’s subtle, but everything.
Confusion is a clever way that fear takes over and holds us back. The way to conquer confusion is to evaluate your possibilities, decide on one and only one of those possibilities, and then never look back.
Here’s a clear way to tell if you’re indulging in confusion: If you feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or panicked about making a decision, that’s indulgent confusion.
In order to find the thoughts fueling your confusion and overwhelm, follow these three steps:
1. Do a thought download:
Spend about five to ten minutes writing out every thought in your head, especially the negative and painful ones.
Make sure to actually write them down, not just run through them in your mind. Your mind is the thing creating all the issues in the first place, so it’s important to get those thoughts down on paper.
After you’ve done a full thought download, look at everything you wrote.
On this blog, a thought is defined as a sentence running through your mind. It might be true, it might not be true. Just because you’re thinking something, does not make it reality. Remember that—it’s important.
2. Now, look for the thoughts that are creating confusion:
Our thoughts create our feelings. Our feelings create our actions. Our actions create our results.
Using that Model, what happens when we feel confused?
We’re driven to be inactive, like procrastinating or completely avoiding something. Knowing that, we need to find the confusion-causing thoughts. Some things to look for in your thought download are any variations of:
- I don’t know how.
- This is too complicated.
- I don’t know where to start.
- I’m confused.
- I’m scared to make the wrong choice.
3. After you’ve identified your confusion-causing thoughts, it’s time to remap them.
That means we’re going to take the depleting thoughts and turn them into something that creates action.
In order to do that, we have to adopt a new thought that we actually believe. For example, if I was originally thinking “I don’t how to write a blog post”, I can’t immediately go to “I know exactly what to do to create my blog post” because that thought isn’t believable to me.
The secret here is to find a thought that feels neutral. That means a thought that doesn’t necessarily create excitement, but it doesn’t create fear or pain either. For example, try on a thought like “I don’t know exactly what to do yet, but I trust I can find the instructions online”.
To see if this thought works for you (meaning it negates your crippling overwhelm and replaces it with something more manageable) plug it into the Model:
Thought: I don’t know exactly what to do yet, but I trust I can find the instructions online.
Action: Start working on writing project.
Result: Accomplish writing goal.
If you plugged a thought into the Model, but you found it made you feel stressed or scared, try a different one! Keep plugging those trial thoughts in until you find one that brings relief from the negative emotions. When you find it, write it down on top of your writing notes. Write it on your hand. Repeat it to yourself over and over like a mantra.
3. Don’t Worry About the “How”
The “How” is a trap. We get so concerned with “how” we’re going to accomplish something that it often keeps up from doing the thing in the first place.
Here’s something that can change your life—the how will only unfold itself with action. It will never, ever reveal itself from mere thinking.
If you find yourself worrying about “how” you’re going to get something accomplished or “how” you’re ever going to be able to figure something out, try to catch those thoughts by doing a thought download and then change them using the process just outlined in the above section. You can also check out the post 2 Steps to Your Writing Breakthrough for a thorough walkthrough of the process.
Simply put—worrying about “how” you’re going to do something is perpetuating the confusion. It’s pointless to think about the “how” because it will never reveal itself to you that way. The how—the actual action steps that will lead you to accomplishing your goal—will only happen with action. So get started.
4. Train your brain that starting isn’t that scary
With that being said—just get started—it’s not always that easy, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Overwhelm (aka fear in disguise) is an unavoidable part of creating. Our brains are designed to keep us away from unfamiliar situations—it’s how the human species has survived. While fear was helpful back when we lived in caves and had to run from jungle cats, it doesn’t serve us well when it comes to new writing endeavors.
In order to convince your brain that your writing endeavors will not lead to certain death, you need to train it to feel comfortable. In addition to being programmed to avoid fear, our brains are programmed to aim for efficiency. They like to get really, really familiar with things.
So, to conquer the fear of getting started, do the same getting started sequence every single time you sit down to write. This needs to be several steps that are really easy that you’ve done a million times before. For instance:
- Put on classical music.
- Put your phone across the room.
- Sit down in your chair.
- Open a Google doc.
- Write an intro sentence (ex: I just got my butt in the chair and I’m so proud of myself for that).
- Write a new word.
- Write another new word.
Well, it is until Step 5, when the actual writing starts.
To help ease the fear of the actual writing part, figure out a simple sentence you can write out at the beginning of every writing session. In fact, why don’t you use the neutral thought you found earlier?
Write or type these words out. If you feel fear calling your name, calmly look at the sentence you just typed out. You just wrote. And nothing bad happened. Now, write another word. Even if it sucks, just write it. You’ll find that after a few sentences, it won’t feel that scary anymore and the words will begin to flow.
Figure out a beginning sequence that works for you. When you feel your brain begin to panic at the thought of writing, just focus on these easy, familiar steps. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to get started after just a few times of doing this.
5. Tackle in Small Chunks
Another trick to conquer writing overwhelm is to work in smaller chunks. It makes a huge difference when you know there’s an end in sight. Using a method like the Pomodoro Technique—doing twenty five minutes of high-focused work and then taking a five minute break—is much more effective than forcing yourself to work for two hours straight with no end in sight.
The Pomodoro Technique is designed for maximum focus without leading to burn out. I use this method for any type of work I’m doing. And when I notice myself resisting my work time (whether before it’s time to work or during) I use this 3-step method to turn around my thoughts and get to work!
6. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
I want to scream this from the rooftops because it was so life changing for me—working towards your dreams will feel uncomfortable most of the time. Whether it’s literal discomfort from sitting still in your chair or mental discomfort with creating work that’s below your standards, it’s inevitable.
But feeling uncomfortable is not as bad as we make it seem. We live in a culture where we seek immediate comfort as soon as we feel a twinge of discomfort. Learning how to be still in the discomfort—meaning you aren’t seeking external solutions like social media or ice cream to make you feel better—is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.
When you feel uncomfortable, your brain will try to tell you something has gone wrong. But that’s not the case. It means everything is working as it should!
7. Trust the process
It’s really easy—especially as a writer—to get in a rut and start to think you’ll be there forever. But stick with it when it gets hard. Stick with it when you feel uninspired or start to feel like you’re a terrible writer. That’s the natural ebb and flow of a writer’s life; it’s inevitable.
Trust that if you continue to show up every day and write, if you continue to meet your writing commitments, it will get better. You’ll get out of the rut and soon find yourself on top of the mountain.
And then sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in a valley once more. Just keep writing. And you will be back on a peak. That’s the process—Write. Fail. Write. Fail. Write. Succeed.
Trust it. Live it. And it will be good to you. Success is inevitable if you keep showing up and keep trying.
What are some action steps you’re taking to fight Writer’s Overwhelm? Share them in the comments below!