Goals Managing Self Planning Time

5 tips for digging out of overwhelm

Written by Allison Wolf

I did not start this week off on strong footing. On Monday morning my emails and social media channels were full of distracting reminders of all the things I wasn’t on top of. My head was full of the large projects I was juggling. I felt myself slipping into fixed mindset thoughts: comparing myself to others, berating myself for having so many diverse projects on the go, and beneath it all the pervasive tug of fear with a dash of some self pity.

In a word, yuck.

And yes, even coaches can feel this way. As master coach Martha Beck says: “you’ve got to live it to give it.”

As part of my mind churned in unhappiness, another part of my mind noticed and was not caught up in the misery. This wiser self urged me to initiate an action plan for getting out of overwhelm.

Here’s what I did.

I walked out of my office and away from my computer with a big pad of white paper. It’s a ring bound book of large sheets of mixed media paper that artists use for watercolours and I use for lists when I need to.

I made myself a cup of tea.

I wrote down the list of projects I had on the go. It was a very long list.

Then on a separate sheet of paper I wrote down the specific actions I needed to take this week on each of those projects. I used a paperclip to attach the to do list to the project list in my book.

I then finished my tea, and returned to my office, placing the book on the left hand side of my desk within easy reach and returned to work.

Having the list beside me kept me focused. I was able to ignore the pull of the distractions and less important but easier tasks that beckoned and returned again, and again, to the tougher bigger items on the list.

On Wednesday I noticed one important was’t getting any of my attention. It was no longer simply because there were more important things to do.  It was because I was feeling some dread about it and avoiding the action that needed to be taken. I kindly reminded myself that it was a pilot project that had gone off the tracks and in the process had taught me a lot. I humbly returned my fingers to the keyboard and got the project back on the rails.

I also paused at different moments over the week to check that the work I was doing was best done by me, and would not be better handled by someone else. When I could, I delegated many tasks to my assistant and to my colleague.

By Thursday afternoon everything that needed doing, had been done and done well. The huge overwhelming mountain was sitting like a manageable bump on my desk.

The experience of this week reminded me that the getting out of overwhelm plan really does work. It also reminded me to get back to my list making habit that had dropped off in the last month.

Here’s is a five step getting out of overwhelm plan you can try next time you get stuck.

  1. Get to higher ground.

I was able to distance myself from the action. I went from I am overwhelmed to I can see I am experiencing overwhelm. Look, this is what I feel and think when I am overwhelmed. This allowed me to pull out of the emotion and mind clutter long enough to know that it was time to do something about it.

  1. Get your list of to-dos out of your head.

The critical second step is getting the to-do-list out of your head.

This is not optional. When the long list of projects and actions is bouncing around the executive centre of your brain it triggers the amygdala and a stress response. It also clutters up the finite resources of our executive centre and leaves little bandwidth for doing tasks requiring any sort of complex reasoning. Hence the urge to respond to emails instead of doing any real work.

Start with a brain dump: Write down a list of all the projects (files/cases/other) you have on the go.

Next, start a list on a new set of paper with all the immediate action items you want to get done in the next week on those projects.

The immediate result of this list making is it clears out some of the cognitive clutter and very slightly reduced some of the stress. The length of the list will likely be daunting so don’t expect to feel home free at this point.

  1. Do what’s important.

With the list beside me I was able to focus my attention and effort where it needed to be. I made good decisions throughout the week and would catch myself wanting to work on a project that didn’t need immediate attention and so would switch gears to turn to something that did.

  1. Match task to energy.

Through out my week of getting out of overwhelm I forced myself to reduce my email time. So much of the work I had before me was complex and required considerable thought and attention. I prioritised my mornings and early afternoons, periods of higher energy for me, and did some email in batches and saved responding to less urgent messages email until the end.

I also discovered that having the to-do list beside me encouraged an experience of challenge rather than dread. This sense of how much can I get done helped to shift my stress from fight or flight to challenge stress that releases higher levels of DHEA the hormone that enhances cognitive function. The result was I found myself being able to work on difficult projects late in the day at times when I would normally not be at my best.

  1. Celebrate. By celebrate I don’t mean throw a party, I do mean acknowledge success. At the end of each day I noticed what got done. I surprised myself at how much was accomplished and I had a small personal celebration. Good job, I got a lot done. On Thursday I stopped work early because I had put in so much effort I deserved a break.

It is now the end of the week and looking back I realise that what started out as an awful experience transformed into some solid learning, an opportunity to help others through sharing the experience in this post, and some insights about some further action I need to take.

And I got a mountain of work done.

Next time you hit overwhelm initiate your own plan for getting out and remind yourself to pay attention to what you experience so that you can learn from it and importantly help others.

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at allison@shiftworks.ca or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

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