Instead of the Big Picture, Look at the Smaller Picture: Ways to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed and Get More Done

I have a lot to do this week and month. Maybe the key thing is that I  am interviewing a major mystery writer, S. J. Rozan, for a Northeast Ohio Sisters in Crime (NEOSinC) conference called Death March on March 12. I am so lucky to get to do this. Last year, I interviewed multi-Edgar award winner, Daniel Stashower, and the year before that, Agatha award winner, Hank Phillipi Ryan. I am asked to conduct these interviews because I am a scholar of the mystery genre, in a group made up mostly of mystery writers and fans, and because I am good at it. I tagged on that last bit because I always forget it. Before every time I go to interview someone famous, someone who has made a difference in my favorite genre, I get frightened that this time, this time, I will mess up, behave foolishly, ask a stupid question, not ask the important question, in fact, perform so poorly I will never be asked to do this again. I also had the brilliant notion that we need to do a better job of marketing ourselves as writers, and said that I would be happy to create a sheet with contact information including social media info for all the writers in NeoSinc. I am creating this handout at the same time as I am reading all of Rozan’s books and preparing to moderate a panel.

Or maybe the key issue is that in a few weeks, one of my best and oldest friends in the world is coming to visit me for four days from London. I haven’t seen her in a year, and my mind is in a whirl about all the things I want to do when she comes here. Part of the difficulty with the visit this time is that two friends she adores and always wants to see have been having a series of crises and have been practically incommunicado. I’ve found myself worrying at odd times what I need to do to both help them and to try to get them to participate in the visit.

But then again, also taking up a lot of time and worry is that I am also teaching, and I am involved in a kerfluffle with a student who has missed 15 classes and the midterm exam and has accused me of unfairness because I don’t think he should be allowed to take the test. (My syllabus says students are likely to fail after missing more than 6 classes. His stance is that he pays a lot of money to go to college, so I should accede to his wishes. We disagree on this.) It is not a pleasant place to be right now.

Of course, I’ve had to have major plumbing and other work done recently meaning money assigned for other things went to pay for this work. And the plumbers are coming back to do yet more work this week.

Most important of all, perhaps, is that I’m also trying to get my book finished, and build my author platform, which includes doing a weekly podcast, which involves, in addition to watching episodes of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, also interviewing others for additional episodes and doing research on Buffy.

Oh, that felt good. A chance to list some of the things weighing on my mind. I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you are wondering what I’m jabbering on about, and it is this: if you don’t find a way to master all that is worrying you, you will accomplish little. When I have a lot happening in my life, sometimes it acts as a spur, and I actually get even more done. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, if you want something done, give it to a busy person. But lately, what I’m discovering, is that I’m tired, and I’m very easily overwhelmed. I used to be able to burn as a blowtorch and get things done no matter what; frankly, I simply can’t do that anymore.

So here are some nuggets of advice that might help you. These are the things that usually work for me, and they are working for me this week, which is why I thought to write this post.

I keep a to do list. I split the page in half lengthwise. On today’s list, the left side says Tuesday, and the right side says Wednesday. I then do what you would expect: write down the things that I need to do today and tomorrow. Having a two day split is incredibly useful to me, because often I don’t think about what I need tomorrow until I see today’s list, and vice versa. This list is nothing new to me;possibly, you do something similar as well.

Over my spring break, I created a simplified Masterlist. Instead of writing everything that needs doing, I wrote it based on key things in my life. This happened, for the month of March, to be 8 things, most of which you see mentioned above. I then took each goal, and broke it into mini-steps. For example, for S. J. Rozan, I wrote down:

  • Rozan books I still had to read;
  • get a Cleveland Public Library card to check out a book I couldn’t get through my usual library system;
  • visit websites to do some research on her;
  • find questions I had asked previous mystery celebrities to get an idea as to what I had done in the past (this makes me feel safer because I know those interviews were successful);
  • what steps do I need to take to create the marketing NeoSinc sheet and
  • what info do I need for the panelists so I can introduce them

I did this sort of breakdown for each important task on my list. Today, when I began to feel panicky about not being able to get everything done, I realized, I can’t get everything done. I can only get a few of the most important things done. My friend from England is coming the end of March. There are a number of things I need to do before she gets here, but that isn’t for 3 weeks. I realized that what I need to do is keep a list of stuff to do, and for things that might need preparation, put a start date down for when to do it. For example, when Nina comes, we watch television and movies together. I’ll need to order some of these from the library and Netflix. Better do that at least 10 days before she comes. Here’s the thing: once I started my list, I realized I didn’t need to worry about that. It is much more important and relevant that I think about and act upon the Rozan project.

There are so many things I SHOULD be doing in addition to what I’ve written above. My tendency at these times is to want to take a nap, make another pot of tea, watch an episode or two or three or more of Murder, She Wrote, my latest obsession. Oddly enough, none of these things (except maybe the tea) will actually help me get anything done. What ends up happening is I fall further behind and fall into more of a swivet. So, I’ve learned to make the picture smaller.

For this week, and this week only, I have to teach, and I have to go to the Lit Cleveland Board Meeting and be prepared, but the most important thing I need to do, I’ve decided, is be ready for the Saturday conference. Therefore, every day this week, on my daily list, are tasks I need to complete for that. Those are what I do before everything else. When I have extra time, I fit in other things. Since I’m quite good at creating baby steps, tasks that can be completed in 10 minutes or less, I find that despite a jam-packed week, most of the little things have been done. I’m also beginning to catch my breath with the mystery conference. This afternoon, I realized after I eschewed the nap and the Jessica Fletcher marathon, that I’m ahead of things with the Rozan project. So ahead, in fact, that I had time to write this blog. This is me feeling really good about the mystery conference.

I learned awhile ago that despite the fact that I create daily, weekly, and monthly lists, I frequently don’t accomplish the most important things (like, let’s say, getting my book finished and published. Oy!) yet I’m always busy. A great suggestion I discovered, which I have to relearn over and over is, put the three most important things, those tasks that will move you towards your heart’s goal (like the book getting finished and into an editor’s hands) at the top of the list. Make sure those things get checked off before cleaning litter boxes and washing windows gets done. And, you can add to this my suggestion of something that is working for me today, that of making the picture smaller.

You can’t do everything, so pick the most important task for the week and do something about it every day.

Keep Writing, Even When You've Got Great Excuses Not to

Last Friday, Feb. 26, I was on top of the world. My spring break was beginning, and I had so much energy. I got rid of paper that had been in my basement for over 15 years! (I’m a college English teacher, and I USED to save everything that could be used as a model for my students. Oy.) This past weekend, I filled more than 8 bags with paper and recyled it. What an amazing feeling. Bins became empty as I removed files and discarded them; several huge boxes are now ready for the garbagemen.

I also worked on Chapter 5, the final chapter of my monograph. And, I set up an author website and wrote three blogs. I finished a couple of books, too. My spring break looked like I was riding on air and going to accomplish so much.

On Monday, Feb. 29, I gave a writing workshop at the South Euclid branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library. I was so excited to present and ready to do so. I woke up late that morning only to discover that my hot water heater had died and was leaking in my basement. I could hear the gas. Oh no. I couldn’t get in touch with a single friend who knew about these things. All I could think about was that my animals would die in a fiery explosion, I had no money to get a new water heater, and in about 45 minutes, I had to give a two hour presentation on the other side of town.

The following day (by the way, nobody died the day before in a gas explosion) the water heater guy came out and needed to drain the tank. Except that my drain in my basement is clogged, and he couldn’t drain the tank. I’d been putting off plumbing repairs, of which there are many, for months, waiting till I had money. Now I needed to hire plumbers to fix the drain so I could get the hot water heater in.

That night, while eating gummy, chewy candy, I realized that my crown was gone (the one in my mouth, not on my head). It didn’t hurt, but I knew I would need a dentist.

That night, last night, I didn’t want to write. My goal is to write every day for a minimum of 26 minutes. (See the post cleverly titled “26 Minutes.”)

Last night, I decided, I had had so many things go wrong, all of them expensive, that it was perfectly reasonable that I not write. In fact, I should take Bailey on a longer walk than usual, and I should watch another episode or two of Psych, and then read. No one, and I mean no one, could blame me if I didn’t write. Life was really sucking, and I shouldn’t have to do anything but self-care.

My brain is so tricky. I had just explained on Monday at the writing workshop that I am what Gretchen Rubin ( of The Happiness Project) would call an abstainer. There are people who can write every few days or weeks without schedule, and they do good work. I’m a person with severe writing anxiety. I am not one of those people. I can go a day or two without writing and still be sort of OK. Longer than that though, and there is a problem. And that’s the thing. My brain is very smart. It knows the angles and knows that I will seize at anything to get out of writing when I don’t feel like doing it. I told my class, don’t allow that to happen.

So, despite not wanting to be at my computer last night, I chose to write. Was it the best I’ve ever written? No, but it wasn’t bad. In fact, I finished a segment of Chapter 5 that has been troubling me for quite awhile. I’m down to 2 more sections to do. That is exciting. And you know what? Accomplishing that goal made me feel better. I lost the panicky feeling, the out of control feeling I’d had with the third disaster. Actually, I no longer thought of any of it as a disaster.

Here’s what I know: I have to finish this chapter. Then I have to revise the book. And then I have to send it out and try to get it published. That is what I need to do whether the roof is caving in or the car needs work. As long as I’m eating and my animals are eating (so they aren’t inclined to eat me in my sleep), and I have heat and electricity, I need to push on through. The alternative is that I don’t finish this book or my future writing projects, thus leading in turn, to my dreams being crushed and my life ruined.

Don’t let your circumstances stop you from taking those baby steps to your success. Last night, I was able to “spare” 32 minutes to do my writing and finish the section. I’m one step closer to finishing this book. Someday, I might even make enough money from my writing to pay for the water heater, the crown, and the plumbing. For now, I just have to keep writing.