Basic Planning to Manage Overwhelm

As law students our workload can look ridiculous between the reading and writing assignments, while trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. We are trained from the outset to deal with and manage a variety of pressures, from uni work to involvement in legal activities and familial obligations. This does not prevent us from feeling these pressures, and sometimes allowing them to overcome us. I’m a big believer in the miracle of planning and preparation as a way to combat this.

Overwhelm is when external influences and pressures have such a strong emotional effect to the point where it feels like it could defeat you. As law students, this feeling is definitely not an uncommon occurrence. It is a momentum of various stresses that arrive at a boiling point, particularly when you think of the many, many, many things that you have to do. If you are feeling scattered, unfocused and generally disorganized, then I hope what is mentioned below will help.

Develop a plan. Stick to it.

I cannot emphasize this enough. I will keep this basic if the idea of planning really anything stresses you out. I simultaneously love and abhor looking at everything I have to get done and creating some sort of weird workable labyrinth in which I make it to the exit.

1.    Brain dump. A large part of overwhelm is having all of these different ideas and tasks swirling around your thoughts, coupled with the frustration of not being able to act on them because of a faulty memory. Spill every.single.thing that is occupying mental real estate onto paper and I mean EVERYTHING. This will include uni work, that doctor’s appointment you keep forgetting about and whether your cat’s nails need trimming. The process does not have to be neat and most likely won’t be. Just sit down and do it.

2.    Sort. Identify the different categories each item belongs under. When tasks are addressed and broken down, they appear manageable and easily conquered. That errand for your mom can go under either the ‘family’, ‘errand’, or ‘errands for family’ category depending on how specific and creative you want to be. Remember that simplicity rules.

3.    Priorities. You’ve created different categories and sorted tasks from your Brain Dump into the corresponding list. It’s time to identify what tasks take precedence over others. Do you struggle with identifying your priorities? Yes? So do I. I start with timing; what is the chronological order of your upcoming events? I think you’ll find that our tasks are often linked to an event that is taking place. For example, the Tort Law midterm is an event, but there are a series of tasks that precede that event. Next, determine what the simple consequence of missing or not completing that event is. By simple consequence I mean, what is the most basic outcome of you choosing to not prepare for that event. Rate this consequence from 1-5, if it helps. An example would be deciding whether you should prepare for a lecture that is scheduled the same day as your midterm. Preparing for that lecture may interfere with your studying time, and because the consequence rating for the midterm is higher than for missing your lecture, it is evident which event will have a higher priority rating. Prioritizing tasks will not always be so easy, but with practice, you will become better able to identify which current tasks will lead to long term gains.

4.    Calendar or Diary. A monthly or weekly view allowing for a broad overview of upcoming events while allowing me to section off the tasks that need to be done in relation to those upcoming events. I usually print off the current week from Google Cal to schedule tasks in 3 - 4 hour blocks. TIP: Give yourself less time to complete a task or project then you think you’ll need. This tip stems from the principle Parkinson’s Law, in which work expands to fill the period of time available for its completion and attributes to the inflated idea we tend to have of how long tasks will take to complete.

5.    Just do it. If you give yourself the space and time to think about your next steps, inevitably you will talk yourself out of taking action. Try counting from 1-5 to go from where you are to where you need to be, for example, moving from your bed to desk. Or, implement a single act that allows you to switch focus. Before I sit down to get any work done, I brew a coffee. The habitual act of doing this automatically switches my focus, from leisure to work mode.

With a careful and detailed plan (however detailed you need it to be), you won’t have to choose between competing interests. You would be able to attend your lecture and be fully prepared for your Tort midterm, thereby increasing your ability to focus and reducing overwhelm. Despite the many uncertainties present in the current climate, we can definitely control our perspective and approach to upcoming challenges.



Elizabeth Maiolo, 2nd Year Law Student, EIC of The Brunel Lawyer