A beautifully simple way to stop feeling overwhelmed at work

A beautifully simple way to stop feeling overwhelmed at work–this is the best go-to strategy for when work is piling up, deadlines are looming, and you finally want to stop feeling overwhelmed at work. (This post may contain affiliate links.)

I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday, glaringly awake, grumpy, and annoyed at myself that I’d stayed up watching the Olympics.

My mind instantly turned to work: emails I needed to return, proposals that needed editing, book delivery dates, production dates, and launch dates stretching far into 2020. (Yes, that’s how far in advance we work!)

And then I got really overwhelmed. Like, can’t-turn-it-off, panicky, sweaty, deep overwhelmed.

I got out of bed, and as the sun was starting to come up, I sat in the living room, wrote everything down, and got started.

Guys, I have never been more productive before 8 am than I was that day. I’m a morning person like Pepper is a human person. It’s that far off.

Of course, I wasn’t gracefully productive. I was angsty productive. I was just desperate to get a handle on all my projects so my brain would stop reeling with to-dos.

But even in that jittery, panicked state, I kept trying to breathe deep and repeat to myself the best piece of productivity advice I’ve ever heard.

stop feeling overwhelmed at work 1

I think of it almost as my Overwhelm mantra. When the panic starts rising, but I don’t have any time to spare with analysis paralysis, I run this break-in-case-of-emergency phrase through my mind on repeat.

I rely on it because it’s uncomplicated; it’s easy to remember; it’s not a fancy 10-step strategy; and it just works.

My beautifully simple strategy to stop feeling overwhelmed at work:

Take the first tiny step.

It’s not: plan out the entire project and set goals and deadlines. It’s not: look at the big picture before zooming in.

It’s the opposite of those two things. Because as important as it is to keep the long view in mind—to remember where it is you want to go and why you want to go there—sometimes the long view can cloud the short view.

Instead, you can fight fear and resistance simply by narrowing your focus. Put your blinders on and focus on nothing but that first tiny step. Don’t think about the end goal; don’t worry about what comes next. Just do the first small thing you need to do to get started on a project.

This quickly takes your focus away from your long list of to-dos and pending projects and zeroes it in on one tiny action, so you can immediately stop feeling overwhelmed at work.

But this first step is likely much smaller than you think. It’s not “write the first chapter” or “respond to emails” or “draft the report.” The first step is the smallest possible building block of a task—the very first action you must take to get started.

Often, the very smallest step is simply to create time and space and quiet. Once distractions are stripped away, your mind settles down and squirms away from the task less frequently.

4 examples of the smallest step
& how it can help you stop feeling overwhelmed at work

  1. Turn off your wifi. Open a Word document. Write one sentence.
  2. Close the windows on your computer. Open a spreadsheet. Add one line.
  3. Turn off the TV. Pick up a book. Read one page.
  4. Close your email program. Open a Word document. Write one sentence of a difficult email.

Most of the time, you’ll keep going. It’s the getting started that trips us up, but once we’ve jumped that hurdle, we start gathering momentum to keep going.

It sounds simple, but it’s changed the way I look at intimidating projects. It’s helped me stop feeling overwhelmed at work all the time, so that I have fewer deer-in-the-headlights moments and more productive, relaxed moments.

So next time your brain wakes up and goes right to the OVERWHELMED channel, remind yourself that you only need to take one teeny tiny step forward. And that is something you can handle.

(Credit goes to Leo Babuata of ZenHabits, who first introduced this idea in this piece on how to form the habit of starting.) 

For more reading on creative productivity, try:

how to get more writing done

How to get past writer's block

guided meditation for writers with anxiety

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What I’m Reading This Week

Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings): If you’re despairing about making progress on a difficult project, I’ll allow you one 5-minute break to read this piece. But after that: get to work!

20+ Dorothy Parker Quotes for Your Daily Routine (Sarah Ullery for Book Riot): “When Your Alarm Goes Off: ‘What fresh hell is this?’” Yes, exactly.

Have You Chosen the Right Main Character to Tell Your Story? (Kristen Kieffer of Well-Storied): “Main characters can make or break a story’s success. Oftentimes, the doubts we face as we work to bring our main characters to life can seem endless. Are our protagonists’ well-rounded enough? Are they interesting? Will readers root for them to achieve their goal?”

28 Parenting Blogs and Magazines That Pay Freelance Writers (Brianna Bell for The Write Life): Freelance writing is one of the best ways to start building your platform and inching your way toward making a living from your writing, so it always makes me happy to see people generously sharing leads like this.

The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein” (Jill Lepore for The New Yorker): “After two hundred years, are we ready for the truth about Mary Shelley’s novel?” A deep and fascinating article about Mary Shelley and her famous monster.

35 Books To Build Your Character: The Definitive Reading List on Humility and Ego (Ryan Holiday on Thought Catalog): A great reading list from the author of Ego is the Enemy.

What We’re Eating This Week:

Remember last week when we played the Imaginary Menu Game because no real cooking was happening around here? Well, this week I finally get to cook like mad from Stonesong client Coco Morante’s book The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook. Happiness ensued!

(And as luck would have it, as I was drafting this post, Coco’s ebook went on sale for $2.99! I am trying very hard not to buy ten of them as gifts. But you can get one here.)

coco morante cookbook cover instant pot

Sunday: Coco’s Whole Chicken with Mushroom Sauce, plus roasted broccoli and beet salad. Every person that I know in real life (and likely you, too) would like me to shut up about this chicken recipe but I WILL NOT.

I made it again this week and if you hate me for not sharing the recipe, I am here to redeem myself: it’s coming in my February cookbook column for The Kitchn! I advise you to buy your town’s entire inventory of whole chickens.

Monday: One-Pot Roast Dinner, which we’re making with venison from The Farm instead of beef. And also, brussels sprouts instead of carrots, plus artichokes, because I am very bad at following recipes.

Tuesday: The Cajun Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya on page 66, but with pheasant from Jarrett’s Christmas hunt in place of chicken. See above re: very bad at recipes.

Wednesday: We’re going to Peter Chang’s for Valentine’s Day!! It’s our favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese place, run by America’s most elusive chef, says The New Yorker. But The New Yorker has not seen how elusive I am when I don’t feel like cooking.

Thursday: Spaghetti with something from the pantry? A vegetable of some kind? Cheese? Hiding under the kitchen table until tomorrow? (See? Elusive. Where is my New Yorker profile?)

Friday: Well, it’s Friday so…  (That is my canned excuse for getting out of most things on Fridays. You can borrow it if you want.)


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This is the best keto cookbook for beginners

A review of the best keto cookbooks on Amazon, plus which one is the best keto cookbook for beginners–perfect for anyone just starting the low-carb, high-fat lifestyle of the ketogenic diet! (This post may contain affiliate links.)

Happy February!

Well, sort of. February is always a grim month—it’s cold; it’s gray; it’s dark; it’s cold. It’s the month when I most want to hide under the covers with a novel. (I’m reading this now!) And it’s the month when I most want to pile on the comfort food, yet there’s still that pesky January healthy-eating thing going on.

Jarrett and I were flattened with the flu all of last week, and we were such sad sacks that barely anything got done. But the two bright spots in the week were this:

  1. Jarrett achieved his lifelong dream of having an op-ed published in the print Wall Street Journal! (Can I go stage-mom for a second and say how bursting with pride I am!?)
  2. My new cookbook column on The Kitchn debuted! My pals at The Kitchn generously invited me to write a monthly cookbook review column for them, and anyone who’s ever heard me monologue about cookbooks knows I couldn’t resist.

We’re calling the column What To Read & Cook Next, and each month, I’ll select one of the bestselling cookbooks on Amazon, investigate why everyone’s been cooking from it, and point you to that one recipe that will change your game in the kitchen.

Here’s an excerpt from this month’s column, where we talk about the best keto cookbook for beginners:

The best keto cookbook for beginners + a fat ball recipe

best keto cookbook

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The 28 best Anne Lamott quotes on books and writing

The 28 best Anne Lamott quotes on books and writing, including the best Anne Lamott quotes on writing as a way of life, writing the truth, the writing process, shitty first drafts, and the magic of books. This post may contain affiliate links.

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.”

That quote always makes me breathe deep and smile. There’s something about hearing our deepest feelings spoken back to us by another person that makes life feel less scary and alone.

Are you a quote collector, too?

Words are more powerful than almost anything else, and so I love collecting little gems of insight from across the ages that I can flip through when things feel overwhelming or confusing. (I catalog a lot of favorite + prettily designed quotes over on Pinterest–follow me there!)

But some of my favorite quotes to collect are quotes about books and writing. Because if there’s one thing that heartens me, it’s remembering that books are pure magic.

best anne lamott quotes

So today I’m sharing some of my favorites: these are the 28 best Anne Lamott quotes on books and writing. Many of them are from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, but there are just as many that were found and collected from her other books or other writing.

(But in case you need just one source for the best Anne Lamott quotes on writing, Bird by Bird is where you need to go. Here’s why I call it one of the 5 best books for writers.)

Confession: I meant to keep this list to under 10 (ha!), but I just could not cut some of these gems. Even reading through these Anne Lamott quotes while I was compiling this list made me feel more at ease and focused. So while it seems silly to say you can have 28 best Anne Lamott quotes, I present them to you anyway. To me, they are the best.

And I hope they also give you a few moments of breathing deep and smiling today.

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This quote can make it easy to write a first draft (free printable!)

This one quote can make it easy to write a first draft, plus a free printable art print with the Anne Lamott quote about shitty first drafts from Bird by Bird.

I hunched into my laptop and clenched my teeth. I glared at the screen. I wrote a sentence, then deleted it. I wrote another one and deleted it, too. I did not want to write a first draft. Ever.

So I decided to quit my job and become a construction worker. I decided to quit my job and become a nurse. I decided to quit my job and become anything else on earth but someone who has to produce words for a living.

I plodded through a few more sentences and decided the only job I was qualified for was dog-petter. I excel at dog-petting.

I kept going, stopping to make fun of each sentence as it went down.

I did not look like this:

reading nook mistakes

(Jarrett makes sitting down to write a first draft look so relaxing.)

You see, I used to hate to sit down to write a first draft. (Do you?)

But then, a few years ago I read a quote that completely changed how I feel about first drafts. It made me realize: it can actually be easy to write a first draft.

This quote can make it easy to write a first draft

I realized that it’s painful to write a first draft because we hold onto an illusion: the illusion that our first drafts should be good. Or even adequate. Or anything but god-awful.

But that’s entirely wrong.

That illusion is chaining us to tense, boring first drafts. It’s making us turn on ourselves. It snuffs our sparkle and stomps on our fun.

So how do we make it easy to write a draft?

We let go of that illusion.

And we let go of that illusion by clinging to this one quote. I’ve heard this quote referenced hundreds of times in my career as a literary agent and editor.

I know writers who write incredibly well and make a lot of money doing it and who’ve filed this quote away in their mental pep talk archive.

This quote on how to write a first draft comes from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, one of the most beloved books on writing. As Anne writes:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

write a first draft

When I first read that in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it freed me.

It freed me to see the first draft as a starting point rather than as Judgment Day. It made me realize that it can be fun and easy to write a first draft. As Anne goes on to say:

“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.

If one of the characters wants to say, ‘Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,’ you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to go into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him.

Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational means.

There may be something the in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposted to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

So, instead of wincing through our painfully bad sentences as we write a first draft, we can throw our heads back and laugh at it. Ha ha ha, that’s really bad, we’ll say. Ha ha ha, that doesn’t make a speck of sense!

And that’s great. It’s great that our first draft is terrible, because it means we’re letting loose and flowing. We’re outrunning our inner critics and we’re getting high off the thrill of going, going, going.

So, to help us all remember that the first draft is for nobody but us, I created a free printable art print with every writer’s favorite Anne Lamott quote:

write a first draft

If you need to remember this liberating quote like I do, then download this free printable art print with the Anne Lamott quote, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

I hope it keeps you from quitting to become a professional dog-petter. Because I already applied for that job.

Click here to access the literary printables archive and download this free art print!

More tips to make it easy to write a first draft:

easy stop procrastinating writing

guided meditation for writers with anxiety

How to get past writer's block

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What I’m Reading This Week

Angie Mar’s Menu: Red Meat and Respect (Tejal Rao for The New York Times): We were so proud to see Stonesong client, Angie Mar, make the front page of the Time’s food section last week! My favorite thought from the piece: “As reports of abuse and sexual harassment in the restaurant business continue to break, Ms. Mar provides an obvious reminder: It is possible — it has always been possible — for a chef to pursue excellence without creating a toxic environment.”

Women Writing about the Wild: 25 Essential Authors (Kathryn Aalto for Outside): Nature + women writers = exactly what we all need more of this year.

Say what you mean to say (Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy): This post really hit me hard. It made me think about how novels aren’t just plots wound out–they are reflections of real life, and they’re meant to remind us of what if.

14 books that will change your life in 2018 (Locke Hughes for Today.com): Looky here, my author Erin’s book, How To Get Sh*t Done, is on this list! And there’s lots of other great, life-changing reads on deck here, too.

What We’re Eating This Week

We were in Miami last weekend, where I ate ten trillion stone crab legs and six peel-n-eat shrimp. A precise counter, I am.

Monday: Cava on our way home from the airport. Because I will collapse if I have to eat another Chipotle bowl.

Tuesday: Well, Jarrett meal-planned for tonight. I am actively encouraging his participation in meal-planning so I am actively not going to use the word weird about the meal we ate.

Wednesday: I know our nation is divided, but I have great news: we are not divided on how to make split pea soup!! I was Googling for a split pea soup recipe, and every single person told me to put ham in it. There is no other way, apparently. And I’m perfectly willing to fall in line for the sake of national unity. Except–I don’t have ham. I have this sausage. So please don’t tell the internet on me.

Thursday: Jarrett is at a class after work, so I’m making a leisurely giant bowl of spaghetti using a recipe from this cookbook. Ah, the single life.

Friday: Our second meeting of dinner club is tonight, and it is Mexican-themed! (This is a front for drinking margaritas all night.)


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