6 Tips to Bring Sanity to the Overwhelmed Creative

Yes I wrote a book all about Analogue Productivity, but in September 2018 I started looking longingly at task managers and project management tools again. I gave 2Do a shot, then looked at the upgrade pricing for OmniFocus. I tinkered with the idea that Things 3 was the update that would work for me.

I also looked at:

I watched YouTube videos from Keep Productive, Journal Joy, Matt Raglan, and others. I seriously considered getting MacSparky’s OmniFocus course.

There were other avenues I went down, but none of them rang true. Nothing was feeling like it was right for the problems I was having. But in some vague way I didn’t know what the problem was.

I’ve Got Some Productivity Problems

Last week Jason and I had a chat and realized that we both had been taking a look at “new” productivity tools again. We both realized that we were doing it for the same reason, overwhelm.

My friend Shawn defined overwhelm excellently recently:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then perhaps you feel as though you have been given too much. In fact, you’ve been given so much that you’re to the point of feeling buried and drown beneath a huge mass of stuff — from urgent issues, undone tasks, incoming requests of your time and energy, and more. And as a result you feel overpowered and defeated.

Jason and I had some itch in the back of our head’s that said if we just found a magic tool, we’d solve the overwhelm problem. We both also knew that, this is not the case for 99.99% of problems with overwhelm. We got ourselves into the crappy position and only different decisions will get us back to a place where work feels manageable again.

I don’t remember what Jason’s week was looking like, but here is what my week looked like:

  • Moving house with 3 little kids
  • 1 client with three “on the go” projects
  • 1 client launching something that I had a hand in
    • same client with another quick fix, that as usual wasn’t quite as quick as we hoped
    • same client with a project I am working on writing for them
  • 1 client with 2 writing projects outstanding, and then they had more budget so they asked for 3 others
  • 1 client that wasn’t getting back to me with the videos and source material they promised to provide for their landing page

I had hoped to close out so much of this in the week that I was moving. I hope you see the futility in that plan. Even the week after is likely mostly shot for long periods of great work.

Tips to Stop the Overload and Stop Hunting for a Magic Tool

If the main problem is overload and the way you’re masking it is by looking for some magic tool, here are the ways you can try to get yourself back on track.

Write down the problems with your current systems

In Analogue Productivity, I said that any new productivity tool must solve problems. That means you need to start by understanding the problems you’re having. If you don’t understand where your current tool is failing you, then you can’t hope to find something better.

With those problems down, schedule yourself 30 minutes to look at new options. In almost every case you’re going to find that nothing solves the problems any better than your current tool. Now, stop looking. Any further work at this point is a waste of your time.

Write it all down

Next, write down all the things that you have to do. List it all out and get it out of your head. As I dabbled in task managers the best thing I did was when I picked one and wrote out all my projects with due dates. I didn’t even stick with the task manager for more than a few days, but that simple step made it all seem manageable again.

You know that writing it all down is good. You also know that when things get crazy you keep working instead of taking 15 minutes to plan out what the day week and month will look like.

Don’t be like that, keep writing all your projects down alongside any other commitments that you have outside work. With a big look at what you have going, you’re in a position to do what matters.

Embrace constraints

One of the reasons I use a notebook is that it means I can’t track some things. Tasks don’t get done sometimes and they fall off my list without any consequences. This helps me realize that they aren’t important to anyone, because there would be negative consequences if it was important.

Embrace this forgetting. It’s one of the key reasons that I use a Bullet Journal to run my online business.

I know that most of you use digital tools for your task managers so you don’t get to forget about anything. All the digital tools sit around and show you every idea you ever thought you’d enter because you once thought it was a good idea for a fleeting moment.

All these extra tasks that you’re never going to do anyway, is why it feels so good to try on some new task manager. You get to prune these tasks when you don’t move them to the new system.

Instead, do a proper review of your tasks. Date the ones you haven’t done in a while and when they are 6-months old, just remove them. You only get to move the date forward if you touch them again because you’re making progress.

If you use Trello, then enable their card aging power up. This will naturally fade out cards that haven’t had any action on them. When they get faded enough, just archive the card.

If your idea is so good, and so important, you’ll either make progress on it or it will come back to mind again later. Either way, prune all those extra tasks in your list ruthlessly.

Say no to clients

Since you should have written down all the tasks you have to do, you should have a good handle on the things on your plate. That means when new prospects come to you with projects, you may need to say no.

If you’re overloaded, you can’t serve your clients well anyway. Saying yes and then disappointing them is only going to harm your reputation.

Start by vetting your prospects. Then, once you’ve accepted their project and they’ve become clients, make sure you schedule out their work when you can do it. It’s no good to tell them you can hit a deadline that crushes your will to live under their requests for speed.

Get proper sleep

It’s so easy to burn the midnight oil when you feel overwhelmed. Getting up an hour earlier, or staying up an hour later, seems like such an easy way to get a bit more done. But the truth is that you’re robbing from tomorrow to pay today’s bill.

In The Art of Focus I talked about the ways we can get better sleep. A quick list is:

  • no caffeine 5 hours before bed
  • no work 3 hours before bed
  • no devices 2 hours before bed

Asian Efficiency also did a long and great podcast on what it means to get better sleep. The truth is that if you consistently lack proper sleep, you’re not doing good work anyway. You’re unfocused and not at your peak brain performance.

That means you’re cheating your clients out of the thing their paying for, your high performing brain applied to their problem.

Don’t cheat your clients.

Plan the week ahead and plan in breaks

The final step in combatting overwhelm is better planning for your weeks. In Analogue Productivity, I showed you how I planned my weeks and my days with a notebook. Whatever system you use, make sure that you take the end of your week to plan the next week. Make sure that you take the last 20 – 30 minutes of your day to plan the next day.

Waking up knowing what projects are on the go, and what specific tasks need to get done in the day will go a long way to making sure that you feel in control of your day. Don’t start the day with email, it’s only a way to let others add items to your task list. It’s only a way to increase your feeling of overwhelm because you can’t control what others are adding to your list.

There are no magic solutions

It’s important to remember that there is no magic solution to feeling overwhelmed in your work. You made decisions that got you to this point. You didn’t set up the systems you needed to keep a handle on your work.

Only you can make a change by taking control of your time.

What are you going to do about it?

If you’ve been looking for ways to get clients and have time to do your marketing work, stay tuned, Jason Resnick and I will be launching a course on Black Friday to help you stop the feast and famine cycle. If you’re not on the email list make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss the chance to join us.

Photo by: lonnon

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