6 Tips to Avoid Being Overwhelmed By Complex Tasks

One of the bigger differences I see between different lawyers is their ability to deal with things when working on a large job, or in a period of high workload. And by “deal with” I mean “get the job done without making their own lives and the lives of everyone around them a misery”.

To some extent you’re just going to get better at this as time goes on, but seniority is not always the magic solution to every problem. After all, I’ve seen plenty of senior lawyers who deal with stress really badly.

There are a few strategies that I find useful when I’m finding things are getting a bit out of hand, so I thought I’d share them with you today in the hope they might be useful next time you’re up against the clock.

Chunk It Down

For junior lawyers, often the task feels overwhelming because they simply have no idea where to start. They’re confused by the facts, aren’t sure what to do, aren’t confident on the law, and have been told to “get it done ASAP”.

This is a recipe for disaster, and results in both poor outcomes and inefficient work.

Any major undertaking can be chunked down into smaller pieces, and solving legal problems is no different.

And the smaller the pieces you can get, the more achievable everything seems.

Let’s take a non-law example – running the marathon (which I’ve never done). If you were going to train to run a marathon, you wouldn’t start by trying to run a full marathon – if you did, you’d fail miserably. Instead, you’d start with a smaller run, and work up towards the larger goal. You’d look at it from angles like time, gear, nutrition, hurdles and steps to accomplish.

In short: you’d chunk it down.

For legal matters I like to draw pictures. No, not funny caricatures of my clients, but mapping out their legal issue so I can visualise what my job actually is.

How is X connected to Y? What are the legal questions that come up? What answers do I already have, and what do I need to find out? The process of drawing out the relationships and the questions forces me to develop a shortlist of matters to work on.

In doing so, I’ve immediately turned a large and complex task into a series of smaller and more achievable tasks. It also helps you readily identify things that you shouldn’t be doing.

Prioritise Appropriately

Once you know what you need to do (within the context of a single job, that is) you need to know what order to do it in.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is almost always connected with a sense that you’re out of control, and prioritising your tasks will give you a good sense of control over the job.

Of course, it helps immensely to have chunked down the larger task into smaller pieces beforehand.

So how do you decide what to do first?

There are three ways of looking at it:

  1. Start the Veggies Roasting – veggies take a while to prepare and a while to roast. If you’ve got veggies as part of your task, then getting them in the oven first while you work on other things is a good way to go. For you this might be requesting information, getting a research task underway or some other thing that’s going to take a while but you can start the ball rolling with not too much effort.
  2. Cleaning the benches – there are some tasks that simply MUST come before others. You can’t cook on a dirty surface, and so irrespective of what you might like to be doing that has to come first. Getting your files sorted, ensuring you’ve chunked out your task, checking compliance issues, and ensuring you’ve got the resources you need for the job – these will often have to come first.
  3. Throwing stuff in the blender – if ultimately all your tasks just need to be done and assembled into the final product in no particular order, and there’s no obvious place to start then the best bet is just to get started. Too much time thinking about these trying to find the “best” order is probably just a waste of time.

Don’t Multi-Task… Even If You Could

Firstly, multi-tasking isn’t possible – you’re just flicking between tasks and doing each of them less well.

I’m also conscious that sometimes you don’t have the choice of absolute focus on a task.  Open plan offices, the nature of communications, and the fact that you have an employer are all going to get in the way.

Generally speaking, attempted multi-tasking is a side-effect of a few things:

  1. Failure to control your distractions – notifications, emails and the like can all get in the way. Turn them off if you’ve got something you need to get done.
  2. Failure to prioritise – if you haven’t sorted out what order you should be doing things, then you’ll be more inclined to make it up as you go.
  3. Not really understanding the job – sometimes we hope that if we just do enough “stuff” then the proper course will become apparent. Although it’s possible this might work, usually it doesn’t work very well.
  4. Telling yourself that you can, in fact, multi-task and it’s OK. You’re wrong – you can’t, and it’s not.

Speak Frankly

If your boss comes in and asks you to do something massive “urgently” then you’ve got to speak honestly. First – what does “urgent” mean. Second – does your boss know what you’ve already got on. Third – if there’s a priority conflict between this “urgent” work and the existing work, which should come first?

Solving priority questions isn’t normally your job – it’s the job of the people who’ve asked you to do the work.

The most common failure to “speak frankly” comes in the form of agreeing to do things in an impossibly short timeframe despite knowing that you can’t do it. This is poor form on a number of levels, not the least of which is that you’re lying to your boss by failing to mention it.

If you’re not speaking frankly, then you’re lying. So cut it out.

Seek Assistance

Lawyers are terrible at asking for help. Sometimes (not always) this is simply due to pride – we don’t want to be seen to be unable to perform the task that has been given to us.

But a 30 second Q&A with someone might often save you 3 hours of messing around.

Assistance doesn’t even need to be given by someone more senior than you – sometimes just another person of any category can help bounce ideas off, check your reasoning, and see if you’re too far off the reservation.

The question is: when do you seek help, and when do you go it alone?

Some triggers for seeking help might include:

  1. You’re going around in circles;
  2. You’re not sure if you’ve covered everything;
  3. You have no idea how to even approach the chunked down version of your task; or
  4. You know for a fact that person X has done this before and a brief conversation with them, if possible, will save you (and your client) a tonne of time.

I’m sure there are many other areas, but those are a good place to start.

Know When You’re Done

Next in the world of overwhelming complexity comes the problem of overworking things.

We all like to have a comprehensive answer to every problem – I get that.

But when we’re faced with a task that’s just a little more complicated than our comfort levels will tolerate, we have a tendency to dramatically over-work things.

The ability to recognise when you’re done is an important one, and might come up in a few ways.

First – you might be actually finished.  This is where the chunking process comes in handy – it’s much easier to know when you’ve done a smaller task than it is a bigger task.

Second – you might have done as much as you can until somebody else does something. Perhaps you’re waiting on instructions, perhaps you’re awaiting input from a colleague.

Third – you might have brain fog and need to do something else for a little while to help you attack the task with more focus later.  Don’t underestimate the power of taking a 5 minute break or an hour or two to do something else. It might seem counterintuitive, but often we come back to the original job with far more efficacy later.

But when you’re done – be done. Don’t keep fluffing around due to irrational concerns about your inadequacy.

Next Time… Avoid the Overwhelm

  1. Chunk down your task
  2. Prioritise correctly
  3. Stop trying to multi-task
  4. Speak frankly
  5. Get help when needed
  6. Know when you’re finished.

Keep your head above water, and…

Happy Lawyering!

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