Managing Self Problem solving Wellness

Emergency checklist for getting out of overwhelm

Written by Allison Wolf

You know the feeling. Your brain is buzzing and feels overflowing. A feeling of panic is taking hold. You can’t focus. Can’t concentrate. Overwhelm has hit.

You started the day with a list of to dos and your best intentions for getting epic amounts done. Then that client called with the emergency request. Your in box was flooded with urgent emails. And it seemed like someone was stopping by your office every five minutes with a question or request. You have fallen dangerously behind and now, just when you need to perform at your best you are stressed out and at a loss.

Time to pull out the emergency plan for overwhelm.

We have emergency plans for our offices and homes. Fire extinguishers at the ready. But how many of us have figured out our emergency plan for overwhelm?

When you are overwhelmed you can’t think straight so it is the worst time to try and figure out what to do. That’s why you need this emergency plan at the ready for the next time you start to melt down.

Here’s is a five step getting out of overwhelm plan you can try next time you get stuck. Modify it to suit your work style.

  1. Turn off the computer screen.

Start by turning off the screen. This is important. The emergency plan starts with pausing and you can’t do that with your work staring you in the face and emails popping up.

  1. Initiate a relaxation practice.

It is important to shift out of panic to relaxation. The way to do this is to trick your brain by taking some deep slow breaths. Here’s one simple practice to try from Adam Hart, author of Power of Food.

Get into a very comfortable sitting position.

–  Close your eyes

–  Place your hand on heart.

–  Breathe in slowly to the count of four.

–  Exhale to the count of 7.

–  Smile gently while bringing to mind a person, place, or thing that makes you smile.

–  Take 3 or more breaths like this and focus on relaxing all your muscles and settling down.

Taking a few minutes to do this sends a powerful message to your brain that you are relaxing.

This helps counteract the stress response and helps your prefrontal cortex to regain focus.

If you need a bit more of a break go for a quick stroll around the office to get some water.

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

The critical third 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 in the executive centre of your brain it triggers a physiological stress response. It also clutters up the finite resources of our brain 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.

Dump all the to dos that came in during the day onto your ongoing list.

Then mark down the ones you want to accomplish in what remains of the day.

Is there anything you can delegate? Make this a priority.

Do you need to communicate with anyone urgently? Write this down.

The immediate result of getting all the deliverables out of your head and onto paper 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.

Turn the computer back on and with the list to guide you get any of the quick actions taken care of in a quick 15 to 20 minute dash. Delegate what needs to be delegated. Then take three slow deep breaths as described above and refocus on a bigger piece of work.

  1. Celebrate.

By celebrate I don’t mean throw a party, but I do mean acknowledge success. At the end of the day notice how much got done and acknowledge that. Good job, I got a lot done.

At the end of the week you will look back and notice the mountain of work that got done.

Overwhelm is normal. It doesn’t have to derail your day. Plan ahead for what to do when it hits.

Download the emergency checklist for overwhelm here: Emergency Checklist. Keep it somewhere easy to access in your office. Next time you hit overwhelm don’t flounder. Simply notice your mental state. Reach for the emergency checklist. Take action.


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 or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

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