business of freelancing

The simple technique I use to cut through my overwhelm

By January 22, 2019 October 1st, 2019 8 Comments

Overwhelm happens to me more than I’d like to admit. I’ll be chugging along happily and then panic-stricken thoughts will hit. How are you going to fit all this in? You’ve forgotten to set up that interview. What if all those people you sent LOIs to are interested? I want to pitch a new editor but I have no ideas. And so on. My theory is that overwhelm is super common amongst freelance writers because we have so much freedom to determine what we want to do, but often that means we feel like we have to do everything.

The simple technique I use to cut through overwhelm

At this time of year, there’s a lot of talk about goals, ambitions and dreams.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a nerd for goal setting and working out what I want to achieve, but sometimes it can all be a bit too much.

In fact, many of the writers I coach also have ideas of what they want to achieve, but feel engulfed by a whirl of emotions and questions: Where do I start? Do I need a niche or not? Should I focus on feature writing or content writing? Can I really make a living as a freelance writer? How can I combine all my interests and clips on my website without looking flaky? Do I really have to be on LinkedIn?

And because there are so many great freelance writing blogs to read, podcasts to listen to, writing communities to be part of, opportunities to sign up for, magazines to pitch and companies to research, I totally get how writers feel that there’s so much to do and very little time to do it.

Overwhelm can stop us from working – we sit paralysed, fearful and frozen staring at the screen or paper, unsure and unable to make a decision about what to do next. Pitches go unsent, letters of introduction (LOIs) are half started, editors’ contacts details found but never reached out to, time is lost scrolling through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but very little actually gets done.

And for freelance writers, like me, who are generalists, overwhelm can hit hard. I always had so many areas that I was interested in – travel, food, health, lifestyle, business, education, sustainability – in fact, it would almost be easier to say what I wasn’t interested in than what I was.

But that I meant I never knew what to focus on. Was I travel writer? A food writer? But what about my corporate clients?

Sometimes I would set aside a morning to pitch ideas to editors or to research companies to send LOIs to and would end up spending an hour or more feeling stressed that I couldn’t think of any ideas and didn’t know where to begin.

But I found one simple technique you can easily use to get focus and cut through overwhelm.

In some ways it feels counter-intuitive because rather than trying to do everything, it’s about reducing your focus.

It’s so simple, but it really works.

Dealing with overwhelm is all about enforcing limitations on your work.

Usually we associate the word limitation or constraint with something holding us back; a negative or a failing.

Yes, limiting yourself is putting a restriction on yourself, but it can really work in your favour.

I found that by placing constraints on:

My time

My availability

Distractions

My to-do list

has really helped productivity.

Mono-tasking is the way to go.

We all know that research strongly suggests that multi-tasking doesn’t work, but yet, we still try to do it.

I really believe that we have to stop trying to do everything at once or else we won’t achieve anything.

So for me, when I start to feel those jitters associated with overwhelm, I pick one thing to focus on.

Of course, there are still the voices in my head that say, “But what about ….”,If you do this now, when will you do X?”, “X is just as important as Y”, and “You’re never going to get everything done if you just focus on one thing” but I know that constraints are the best way for me to get things done and subdue the overwhelm.

So, for example, if you’re thinking about branching into content writing but have several different topics or areas you’d like to work on, pick one.

This doesn’t mean that you’re “niche-ing down” or that you’re always going to be stuck writing in that area, it just means that you are going to wholeheartedly apply yourself to researching companies in that area, sending out LOIs and recording each one as you go.

So how can you prioritise which thing you need to focus on?

  1. Make a list

    First, put everything you need or want to do in a list. Get it out of your head and onto the paper. Overwhelm is less about what’s going on around you and more about what’s going on inside your brain.

  2. Identify which are long term and which are short term goals

    There will be things on your list that are long term (like doing your website) and other things that need to be done more immediately (finishing off an article, following up on a pitch).

  3. Focus on the ‘easy wins’ first

    I know there’s a whole heap of articles out there about ‘eating the frog first’, but for me, when my nerves are jangled and I feel overloaded, I like to tick off the easy wins. A bill that’s due? Paid. An invoice that needs to be sent? Done. I like to get into the rhythm of work before I actually start doing the hard stuff. So my recommendation is to start with a short term goal that you can do easily.

  4. Choose one thing

    Don’t stare too long at your big, messy and jumbled to do list. Pick one thing that you are going to do. Just one.

  5. Apply a limitation

    For some people, choosing one thing to focus on will be enough to quieten down the sense of overwhelm. For others, you may also need to place limitations on the task – like setting an alarm for 20 minutes, turning off the internet and putting your phone in another room.

    Just remember that whatever you do doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to get done.

By writing a list of everything that I’m holding in my head and choosing one thing to do, I find that my thoughts get focused on that task rather than running through an endless list of things I need to do in rapidly evaporating time.

There is so much noise ‘out there’ – you can read endless blogs, articles, enrol in courses and listen to podcasts but actually, if you are overwhelmed already, this is all just going to add to your load.

It’s far better to switch off, choose one thing and make your way as best you know how.

Do you get overwhelmed? What is your strategy for dealing with it?

8 Comments

  • JoAnna says:

    Fantastic article! I’ve also found that focusing on just one thing at a time works well to reduce overwhelm. When I choose to focus on one thing, I also find that I’m more productive because my brain isn’t distracted with multiple tasks at once.

    Taking a moment to just breathe also helps with reducing overwhelm. A few deep breaths can work wonders to slow down your thoughts and get you back to feeling centered and in control.

  • This couldn’t have come at a better time than right now at new year, when it’s the summer holidays, the kids are home, and it’s easy to feel things are piling up left undone as you try to feel relaxed about having great rafts of time off!!
    I use some of those techniques too. You’re so right about the multi-task / mono-task thing. I’ve decided to reorganise my work, because I do about five different things, and instead of trying to do a bit of each every week, I’m planning on doing just one thing for about two or three days at a time, getting a really great lot of work done and then moving on to really focus on something else. I feel better about things already with this plan in place!!
    I’ve quit with the ‘to do’ list which was split into quadrants – I’ve now got separate to do lists on different clipboards for the main client, the freelancing, the farm and food business, and the book promotion. (Told you I was busy!) And that has made the overall workload seem more approachable too – breaking it down.
    Lastly, quick wins – yes!! Tick ’em off, it makes ya feel great!!
    Here’s hoping the planning and strategy making works out and the wheels haven’t fallen off by February!!
    Fiona x

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Oh I hear you Fiona – my partner and kids are currently at the pool and I’m inside by the whirring fan.
      I’m interested to hear that you’ve quit the quadrant list – that’s still what I’m using – but I’d love to hear about the clipboards. From a practical point of view, do you carry them around with you or where do you keep them?
      Here’s the wheels staying on well into the year. Hope your book publicity is going well?

  • Hi Lindy,

    Thanks for this post which comes at a good time with the beginning of the year and "dreams and goals" frequent talks. I’m particularly overwhelmed these days – and hate it! Meditation, deep breathing and yoga help. Single tasking too, but I find I get really satisfied when I can deal with a bunch of little tasks (quick research for an info, short emails) in the same time, as my mind comes up with them.

    One thing that has helped tremendously (although still not enough!!…) is the new painted blackboard on my kitchen wall (I just moved into a new apartment). It wasn’t meant to host my to-dos when I decided on having it painted, but it’s a big help to hand write things I have to do in the next day(s) or hours. I definitely can’t lose such a list, compared to a paper one! Plus, I see it clearly and wipe off things as they’re done. Thirdly, it’s pretty fun writing on a big blackboard as if I were a schoolmistress back in the days!!…

    Finally, I find reading my favorite blogs (hint! hint!) and/or communicating with freelancers on the subjects that worry me really helps with overwhelm – as long as I don’t spend to much time doing it…

    Love from snowy Lyon, France!

    AL

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Yoga is on my to-do list Anne-Liesse (I realise how ironic that sounds!)
      I LOVE the idea of your blackboard and can totally see the appeal of such a visible reminder of what you need to do. And the feeling of accomplishment is so good when you wipe it off.
      I wish it were snowy here – it’s 44 degrees celsius today!! Keep warm 🙂

  • Rachel says:

    Great post Lindy. I have a weekly list I’ve used for years. It’s a two-column Word doc split into freelance stuff that’s due (in order of most urgent at the top), People to call / email (this includes interviewees, invoices I have to send, phone calls I have to make), Rachel’s List stuff to action and Long-term stuff. A lot of it is obviously carried over from week to week but the freelance stuff gets churned through and changes a lot. I love reaching the end of my work week (which is part-time) and seeing how much stuff I’ve drawn a line through. I also have a bullet journal where I jot down stuff I need to do that doesn’t make it onto the list. It’s the only way I’ve found that keeps me organised (and, I guess, a little less overwhelmed…)

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks so much Rachel. It’s so satisfying seeing things get removed or crossed off the list isn’t it? I haven’t ever used a bullet journal, but am interested in doing so. I’m still a big fan of pen and paper to organise my to-do list – old school I know!

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