When You’re Overwhelmed

In the wonderful world of book publishing, everything comes in cycles. You push new titles through the spring and summer to meet the often-unreasonable deadline of holiday seasons. And during the beginning of the holiday season, you scramble to meet end-of-year and new-year deadlines.

In between those times, there are weeks of no work, which prompt irrational fears of taking a side job at Starbucks, becoming a live-in nanny, or having to sell a kidney. Those lulls are usually followed by weeks of more work than is humanly possible to accomplish in even 80 hours and cause exhaustion, near-fatal levels of caffeine consumption, and sleep deprivation.

Neither of these seasons will ever change, it seems.

In my ten years of publishing, not once has a year gone by that didn’t ebb and flow as the cycle of supply and demand fluctuated. And every year I’ve told myself that somehow I would be immune to it. That this year, I’d be so super attentive with my scheduling that I’d never experience any type of merciless overage or panic at an empty inbox and bank account.

I’ve been kidding myself.

For one, publishing will never change, at least in the respect that there will always be deadlines, there will always be new content, there will always be new clients, and none of it ever comes in a nicely wrapped package. Never. That just isn’t how it works.

If you’re a freelancer, I’m guessing you know this cycle all too well. So, here are some scenarios with Good and Bad suggestions for how to handle the stress of project management hell, along with some equally Good and Bad suggestions for how to be productive with the down time when it comes.

1. You are booked solid for the next three weeks and a client emails with an urgent need. Do you:

a. Ignore them completely.
b. Put everything else aside immediately and work on that project.
c. Shoot back an email saying you can squeeze them into your schedule in a few days.
d. Curse loudly.
e. Walk away from your computer for a few minutes until you can craft a reasonable response and timeline.

2. You’ve got two time-intensive projects this week that could easily take 70 hours between them. Do you:

a. Go buy a case of Red Bull.
b. Skip the gym, normal meal times, and the majority of your sleep for a week to get it done.
c. Quit your job and move to Alaska.
d. Schedule blocks of time for each project each day and accept that you can only do so much in a week.
e. Curse loudly. And often.

3. You’ve wrapped up everything you’ve been working on but you don’t have any new meetings or projects scheduled. Do you:

a. Call your realtor, sell your house, and move back home with your mama.
b. Use the free time to reach out to old clients, find new clients, and scout some networking events to attend.
c. Sleep for two days straight.
d. Curse loudly.
e. See how many calories you can burn at the gym in a week without being hospitalized.

4. You’d like to increase your project load for the next quarter, but aren’t sure how to use your time effectively. Do you:

a. Let your contacts know that you’re looking for new business and ask them to spread the word.
b. Assume that people will magically find you and beg you to do business with them.
c. Make a cute sign and stand out on a corner in a halter top, promoting your business.
d. Curse loudly when people throw quarters at you while you’re holding your cute sign.
e. Craft marketing material that explains how your company stands out over your competition and spend time each day contacting people in your industry.

I can’t change the craziness of the industry. And you can’t either. But I can make better use of my down time and better choices when I’m nearing maximum brain (and patience) capacity.

You’ll only hurt yourself if you offend a client with a snarky email response—even if it was the best response ever. And you won’t be able to do a good job on any of your projects if you’ve worked so many hours without a break that your butt has stuck to your chair. Or that you forgot to shower. Or that you don’t remember when you last ate anything.

If you have a good reputation, I’m going to bet there will always be at least some work available and if not, you’ll always be able to scrounge up some new projects. So walk away from the case of caffeine and the halter top.