“Overwhelm” Five Productive Principles to Overcome It


By Dyan Williams

Whether you’re a solo lawyer or a partner at a big firm, you’re bound to experience “overwhelm.” It’s the feeling of not being able to manage the depth, breadth, and complexity of your situation. You feel buried with work, overloaded with responsibilities, and saddled with deadlines. 

You have limited time, energy, and attention to do all the things in all the domains of life. You experience emotions like fear, anxiety, worry, guilt, or anger, which you cannot link directly to a specific stressor. You have cognitive drain that impairs your ability to concentrate, problem-solve, think clearly, understand complicated issues, and recall vital information. 

In my productivity coaching work, I speak frequently with lawyers and legal professionals who struggle with overwhelm. When everything seems important and time-sensitive, you often resort to working longer and harder. Or you might seek to work smarter or plan better, but you’re not sure how to get there. 

I know one lawyer who shifted her wake-up time from 7 a.m. to 5 a.m. to get a head start on legal writing projects. But she wound up using the extra morning hours on emails and continued to work into the evenings on her legal briefs. Another lawyer designated office hours for paralegals to ask questions on their assignments. Although this was more efficient than the open-door policy, he failed to protect time for creative, high-level work. Both of these lawyers continued to be overstressed and overworked despite tweaks in their work habits. 

To overcome the feeling of overwhelm, you could integrate and implement the five productive principles that I discuss in my book The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps

One: Prioritize and Re-prioritize

Overwhelm stems from a lack of clarity. If you treat all things on your to-do list as a priority right now, then nothing really is. It is pointless to do tasks and engage in activities that keep you busy, but don’t serve a meaningful purpose. While you might not want to stop, pause, or slow down, this is exactly what you need to do when you’re off track.  

To prevent mental overload, do a brain dump of all the tasks swirling around in your mind. Get them on your task list or into your task management system, be it analog, digital, or hybrid. 

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen writes that “open loops” are a cognitive drain. These are undone tasks that you keep in your mind and need to be captured in a reliable task management system. When you trust your system, you will review it daily and weekly to plan tasks, activities, and commitments that connect with your goals and purpose. With planning, you make progress strategically on the things that matter and weed out what does not. You also pinpoint legacy projects that you need to drop because they no longer add value. 

Prioritize means you organize your tasks in the order of importance. You could use the Priority Matrix to categorize different types of activities into four quadrants: 

In Quadrant 1, you have the important and urgent. These are high-value, high-impact tasks that often involve real emergencies and deadline-driven projects. They include finishing a legal memorandum for an appeal and preparing for an upcoming trial. Do these tasks first, preferably when you have the most focus, energy, and willpower. 

In Quadrant 2, you have the important, but not urgent. These tasks have high value and high impact. They include writing an article for an industry publication, creating a marketing strategy, or designing a course in your field. Because they are not as time-sensitive as Quadrant 1 activities, you need to decide when you will do them, schedule time for them, and set due dates and milestones to make progress. 

In Quadrant 3, you have the urgent, but not important. Urgent does not mean important. These tasks have low value and low impact, but they seem urgent nonetheless. They include random communication like incoming emails, text messages, and telephone calls from clients and prospects. Delegate these tasks to the fullest extent possible. 

In Quadrant 4, you have the not urgent and not important. These tasks consume a lot of time and attention but add no real value or impact. They include scrolling social media, watching YouTube videos, and catching up on the news. Delete them or don’t do them (unless they are time-capped and a deliberate part of your downtime). 

In setting your priority for the day, choose your Most Important Task. Your MIT is your high-value, high-leverage activity. It contributes directly to your short-term objectives and long-term success. If you neglect your MIT, you will hurt your business, damage your reputation, or harm your career, your employer, your clients, and the people you serve. 

Limit your priorities list to three MITs. Decide which tasks will make the most difference if you accomplish them or make significant progress on them today. Any additional tasks are secondary and may be deferred to a later date. When you know what’s most important, you’re more equipped to say no, set boundaries, negotiate deadlines and deliverables, and suggest alternatives. 

Two: Break Projects into Smaller Tasks

Overwhelm stems from a lack of confidence. When you have a disproportionate challenge-skills ratio, it’s harder to focus and get in the state of flow. Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as the optimal state of consciousness in which you’re so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. This is when you’re performing at your peak. 

The sweet spot is where the challenge is 4 percent greater than your skill level, says Steven Kotler, author of The Art of Impossible. You want your goals to be just right for your skill level, not too hard and not too easy. Peak performers tend to go too big and then burn out. When you’re overwhelmed by the challenge, back off and go smaller. 

Break the challenge down into sub-challenges that slightly exceed your skillset but are not too far outside your comfort zone and not too overwhelming. Chunk down your big projects into tinier action steps that are specific and manageable. Build momentum and gain traction by dividing project components into smaller tasks you can identify and execute more easily. Make smaller commitments that allow you to gain traction and celebrate wins consistently.

Three: Set Time Blocks for Essential Tasks and Activities

Overwhelm stems from a lack of intention. Channel your focus on your high-priority task by blocking time for it on your calendar. Time blocking protects time and reserves space for tasks that need attention. 

You set time blocks with a start time and end time to work on a specific activity. You could single- focus on one difficult, high-leverage project like a strategic marketing plan, or you could batch-process similar, low-level tasks like responding to emails and returning telephone calls. You can move around time blocks if true emergencies and unexpected delays come up. You can schedule new time blocks if you need more time to finish the task. 

Time blocks tell you when you will do a task, in what context, under what circumstances, and for how long. Time blocking encourages you to take deliberate action steps, block out distractions and interruptions, and avoid multitasking and task switching. It allows you to control your time, train your mind, and build focus muscle to do important work. 

Along with time blocking, you can also use time boxing, which is limiting the amount of time you spend on a project. This discourages unnecessary perfectionism and prompts you to complete projects efficiently and effectively. 

Four: Synch with Your Natural Rhythm

Overwhelm stems from a lack of intrinsic motivation. Your focus and energy levels ebb and flow throughout the day. Your natural rhythm affects your willingness to engage in productive work or creative work at certain times of the day. 

Your circadian rhythm is an internal timing device that controls when you are most alert and when you are most tired. It is your brain’s sleep-wake cycle in a 24-hour period that determines your natural wake-up time and bedtime. A group of about 20,000 nerve cells (neurons)—referred to as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus part of the brain (behind your eyes —affects the secretion of hormones, like cortisol (which triggers your body to wake up) and melatonin (which tells your body to go to sleep), as well as your body temperature and blood pressure. 

Your sleep chronotype is the behavioral manifestation of your circadian rhythm. It is genetically set and is linked to your Period 3 (PER3) or “clock” gene. In the field of chronobiology, Early Birds tend to have a longer version of the PER3 gene than Night Owls. They need more sleep and wake up and go to bed earlier.

In his book, When, Daniel Pink recommends that if you’re a morning person (Lark), you should do focused, analytic work in the early morning when you have the highest energy and mental sharpness (peak stage); your routine, administrative tasks in the early to midafternoon when your energy and focus levels drop (trough stage); and your creative, insightful tasks in the late afternoon or early evening when your energy, but not your vigilance, picks up (recovery stage). If you’re an evening person (Night Owl), you follow a reverse pattern: you do heads-down work and linear thinking in the late afternoon and evening, and your creative work and diffused thinking in the morning. 

Five: Rest and Recharge

Overwhelm stems from a lack of rejuvenation. Your ultradian rhythm is the basic rest-activity cycle that repeats in a 24-hour day. Your heart rate, hormonal levels, and brain-wave activity rise during the first part of the cycle. After about 90 to 120 minutes, these physical measures begin to drop. And your body starts to need rest and recovery. 

Following every 90 to 120 minutes of focused work, it’s generally ideal to take a 20- to 30-minute break. Your work-rest split (e.g., 25 minutes work to 5 minutes rest or 50 minutes work to 10 minutes rest) depends on your own focus muscle, energy level, the type of task, the time of day, your work schedule, and other factors. 

Some types of breaks are more restorative than others. They may involve alone time (e.g., meditating, taking a nap, reading a calming book); interaction with nature (e.g., looking out the window, sitting on a park bench); social connections (e.g., chatting with a colleague, having lunch with a good friend); relaxation (e.g., daydreaming, sketching, listening to music); and movement (e.g., taking a walk, stretching, cleaning up your desk). Go offline and ditch the digital devices that deprive the brain of downtime and add to the sense of overwhelm. 

In the book Rest, author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says seven to eight days of vacation help a person to reach maximum restoration. Aim to take a vacation every two to three months for peak performance. At the very least, switch off completely from work on weekends. Engage in a creative hobby, take a scenic hike, or experience a new environment to relax and decompress. 

When practiced consistently and holistically, these five principles will help you overcome overwhelm, regain control, get back on track, and work and live more intentionally. 

Dyan-Williams-150Dyan Williams

Dyan Williams practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law. She is also a productivity coach for lawyers, consultants and other overwhelmed professionals. She is the host of a productivity podcast and author of the book, The Incrementalist. She blogs at dyanwilliams.com and dyanwilliamslaw.com