How to Beat Overwhelm & Get Back on Track With Writing Goals

There are the writing setbacks you anticipate (and plan for) and the ones that catch you unawares. When you know you’ve got an upcoming vacation planned, thus won’t be able to hit your word-count goals, you can schedule extra writing days ahead of time or (what I usually do) give yourself permission to take a break, guilt-free, and mean it.

Writing is generative work. Writers need regenerative periods. Fallow spells. Time to refill the well of ideas, to loaf creatively, to fill up that bank of sunsets for another day. Permitted breaks are very necessary, encouraged.

It’s the other kind of break that’s caught me off-guard of late. I was right on track with all my things (freelance and novel-writing requiring an exhausting number of balls in the air at all times) and then, whomp…the unexpected knocked everything sideways.

The in-laws called to say they were getting their floors refinished and could they come stay for three to four days over the next week and a half, or so. One of those situations that you can’t really say no to, because family. Timing-wise, it was less than ideal as they bumped right up against a planned visit with my mother, leaving me with 48 hours to turn around the guest room, re-tidy the house, get in a load of laundry, etc.

Add up all the time spent cleaning, hosting, and making sure various guests had what they needed and very little productive or creative work got done!

How Setbacks Sabotage Your Productivity

This way the particular interruption this time, but the circumstances are irrelevant. These setbacks rise up for all kinds of reasons (illness, injury, travel delays, difficult people). Plans derailed, its easy to switch into a reactive mode where you’re trying your best to respond to what happened with your goals and schedule sidelined indefinitely.

At least that’s how it goes for me. Reactive mode is a coping mechanism that leaves me going from one thing to the next to the next, without the mental clarity that comes with the anticipated setbacks, when I have the luxury of time to plan ahead. Reacting continues even after the setback is resolved, as I try to clear the backlog of tasks that accumulated in the interim. I forget the original goals I was working toward, and now just want to get “back on track” — the sort of vague and insidious goal that is always two steps out of reach.

As happens in reactive mode, I never quite catch up. This leaves a tangle of residual stress that grows as the days stretch on. I’ve got my hand in all the pots, doing just enough to feel like I’ve pushed the ball forward — and never enough to see a task to the end.

By this point, I’ve also dropped the good habits that keep me on track: the time tracking, daily calendaring, administrative keep-up work, and deadline forecasting systems that are a must for any freelancer who’s serious about getting paid.

I’m busy all the time, yet I’m not getting things done.

It’s mentally draining, physically draining, and unsustainable. Stress builds to an overload and I realize, having drifted along unawares in habitual patterning, how I’ve gotten myself stuck and must un-stick to get back on track.

I dig out my planner, see where I’ve left off, and shift things around.

I meditate, hoping to find that inner place of stillness, a safe space from the winds of worry that pull me off track.

I carve out some time to plan, even though it’s the last thing I want to do because it feels like more work.

There’s always inner resistance that comes up when it’s time to flip the inner switch from reactive back to practice mode.

I judge myself for getting caught up in the busyness of life. For falling into reactive mode. For not being better at it, whatever “it” is – because “it” is a moving target. I hold myself to the higher standard of knowing better, when what I need in this moment is compassion.

Life happens. This will happen again.

I’m learning to meet this resistance with a smile. It’s part of the response, one phase to push through to get back to a place of working toward my goals from a place of power.

How I Break Out of Reactive Mode

If you’re caught in reactive mode, feeling overwhelm, try these steps.

Recognize the problem. Your awareness will start to shift. Ahh, so that’s what this is.

Take a deep breath. Have a sip of tea. Give yourself a moment of time-out. Gently introduce compassion and care.

Meditate. Or talk a walk. Move your body. Still your mind. Again, self-care.

Review your to-do lists, your deliverables, your big dreams. Where did you leave them? What needs tending-to, and what can be dropped? Resist the urge to judge yourself here.

Pick 2-3 things. You might pick the things that will give you the most joy (submitting that manuscript, calling the friend you haven’t gotten back to) or the low-hanging fruit (doing the load of laundry, emptying your inbox), or the things you can no longer put off (paying the bills, editing that piece that’s due by end-of-day). Select 2-3 things using any criteria, then do them with focus and presence.

Pause. Savor. It may not feel like much but you’re reclaimed a bit of power, silenced the inner dread. Something is on track again, even if it’s just that you will have clean clothes.


Move through your day, tending to things that need it. Wrap up with quiet reflection, a dance party, a coffee break. How do you feel? What is moving well? What is still stuck? Plan tomorrow, moving forward the things that need it.

Set work aside and do something regenerative. Fill yourself up. More self-care feeds the doing. You’re over the hump now.

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