Writer’s overwhelm and the power of acceptance

Photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash

This week I have been busy with my Focused Flow app development tasks and learning how to make videos to promote my app when it’s finished. Therefore, the blog hasn’t been updated. I’ve thought about it often, but each time I sat down with the laptop and opened the page I experienced the common problem of overwhelm- that experience of having too much to do, too little time, and the temporary jamming of the cognitive processing required to write. This hasn’t been made any easier by my seasonal problem of hay fever that drains my energy and leaves me feeling unmotivated.

This week I’ve also been working closely with two academic clients who’ve reported a similar problem with overwhelm clogging up their cognitive gears and leaving them with a sense of dread. So, overwhelm seems to be this week’s issue all round, and is a common problem for academic writers who have to filter through piles of notes, references and ideas, focus them down into a coherent narrative and structure their research into a written paper.

While working with my coaching clients I’ve discovered one size definitely does not fit all when managing writer’s overwhelm. As I develop and refine the Focused Flow model, managing overwhelm appears to be key to overcoming procrastination and dissolving writer’s block too. In my short promo video, I focus on the problem of overwhelm that strikes when we’re faced with piles of notes, our mind is firing off in all directions with lots of ideas, focus deserts us and taking action by writing seems almost impossible.

One strategy for overcoming overwhelm is ‘snack writing’- making a pledge to jot down around 200-300 words a sitting, using cognitive defusion to stay on track should the inner critic emerge and start trying to edit what you’re writing. Another is to use acceptance strategies to make space for the discomfort of overwhelm and stop struggling against it. My recent experience of overwhelm led me to experiment with some acceptance strategies by leaning into the uncomfortable sensations I was experiencing in my body right around my lower abdomen- a sense of restlessness coupled with dread- and then once I had a clear visualisation of it, I stepped back from my thoughts about it using defusion strategies- specifically ‘I notice I having the thought that I can’t do all of this’. In the video below from ‘Therapy in a Nutshell’ a multitasking mother, therapist and writer discusses her strategy for overcoming overwhelm.

I did something similar, by making a list of tasks for the day and taking action, despite the feeling of dread I was experiencing deep in my gut. Overwhelm was blocking my productivity just as it had with my clients. I had too much to do in too little time, but really the timeline I had imposed on myself pointed to unrealistic goal setting. The solution was to review my goal setting, prioritise my tasks, and set more realistic goals that I could manage- not so challenging they’d cause anxiety and not so easy I’d get bored. This is key to dropping into the flow state, establishing focus, and optimising productivity.

I also bought a special journal to help me reorganise myself and record what I learn on a daily basis… including doodling and mind mapping my creative process and noting down what helps me to drop into my flow state. The pathway to the flow state is unique to each individual. I have discovered that leaning into uncomfortable sensations and emotions, defusing from my thoughts about them, while making bite sized daily short-term goals helps me to dissolve overwhelm and reorientate to the values driving my writing process. I had to remind myself not to underestimate the power of taking small steps to completing what appear to be formidable tasks- like building an app for the very first time.

In the video below, Russ Harris describes the ‘chess board metaphor’ to explain how acceptance and defusion combined can unhook us from inner struggles like overwhelm or anxiety and give uncomfortable feelings the space to move. When we become like the chess board rather than the chess pieces, we step back and observe our inner state rather than freezing in the face of overwhelm and the sensation of dread that accompanies it. Instead, we can embrace the power of the witness state and make space for the overwhelm to shift and dissolve.

Today, I’ll return to building the Focused Flow app after taking a short break to reorganise myself. The experience of overwhelm has receded but I’m aware it has the potential to return if I lose my focus. Finishing this blog post is one item crossed off my list for today! Without my experience of overwhelm the past few days, it’s unlikely it would have been written. As ever, I turn to my inner experience to guide my investigation of the writing process. I hope you find my reflections and the video resources I’ve shared useful. I look forward to any comments below or email me on info@focused-flow.com if you have questions you’d like to discuss in private.

Author: Jo Nash PhD

I'm the founder of Focused Flow writing coaching. I have a PhD in Psychotherapy Studies from the University of Sheffield, UK, and am a trained mindfulness therapist, as well as a widely published writer. I am passionate about writing and have developed the Focused Flow model to help writers of all kinds overcome obstacles to the writing process and optimise productivity. I offer free tips and techniques to overcome obstacles to writing on this blog.

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