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Mindful Writers: Facing the Smushy Blob of Too Much Work

The conversation went something like this:

My friend: Emily, I need some writing advice.

Me: Okay…

Friend: How do I make myself just do my work?

Me: What work do you have to do?

Friend: SO MUCH.

Me: What is the work, specifically?

Friend: I have three big papers to write.

Me: How long will they take you?

Friend: FOREVER!

Me: (slaps forehead.)

Basically, my advice for my friend in this instance was to take a breath. Clearly, she was overwhelmed. I can totally relate. I’m often juggling multiple projects at once, and if I’m not careful to keep my thinking about the projects separate, they all seem to smush together into one big blob of a billion insurmountable tasks that I’ll clearly never get done and then I’ll fail at life. Or something a little less dramatic.


But still, I can see the train of thought carrying me away from the actual task (or tasks) at hand, leading me to think I might as well not even try because all my work will be for nothing. Which usually isn’t true—but oh, how true and solid my thoughts seem!

When I start to get overwhelmed with work I try to take a calm, organized approach. I’m kind of a fiend when it comes to lists, so I like use them a lot. Here's what I do:

o   Divide the work into each individual project (if there is more than one)

o   Divide each project up into the tasks necessary to get the project done

o   Figure out how much time I have to work with (is there a "due" date?)

o   Figure out approximately how much time each task will take

o   Make a (somewhat flexible because things change) schedule—assign a time/day for each task, and write the schedule down somewhere easily accessible

It may seem like overkill, and for some people this kind of planning isn't necessary. But I take on a lot of things that I care about, and so when I sit down to work I'm bringing with me the perceived external pressure to get it all done on time and do a good job, as well as internal pressure to do my best work so that I'll be happy with it. That's a lot of pressure (whether real or imagined.) So I need to try to have clear thinking when I work, and these lists help me think clearly. But sometimes I forget my own wisdom. Just like mindfulness, the hardest part is to remember what works for me. Usually, doing this kind of planning makes it much easier to find the motivation to sit down and work because the work feels MANAGEABLE. DOABLE. Like I will be successful and not fail. The smushy blob of too much work is no longer a smushy blob. It’s just the work.

Here's a great animated video on the Science of Procrastination and How to Manage it via Brainpickings.org.

There are times, of course, when a smushy blob of work—like beginning a piece of creative writing, for example—can’t be broken down into tasks. There is no step 1, 2, 3. There is no timeline. What then? More on this next week.

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