The phenomenon of being frozen in a state of inaction is well known to those who, like me, suffer from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but it isn’t uncommon in people without diagnosed ADHD. Often called “task paralysis,” “couch lock,” or “overwhelm freeze,” anyone can find themselves in this state when they are confronting an especially daunting task or an overwhelming number of discrete tasks and cannot seem to figure out where or how to begin. Task paralysis is not a problem unique to young lawyers and it is not uncommon among experienced, highly successful lawyers. Perfectionists are especially prone to it and our profession attracts more than its fair share of perfectionists. Wherever you are in your career as a lawyer, effectively conquering task paralysis takes knowledge, experience, persistence, and some courage.
The first step to conquering task paralysis is simply naming it and realizing that you aren’t alone or even in that small a group of people who experience it from time to time. Many of your colleagues and contemporaries have been stuck and have found ways to get unstuck and succeed. If they can do it, so can you. Just internalizing this observation can help you avoid panic and abject helplessness. Don’t make things worse by beating yourself up for the temporary inactivity and ineffectiveness that are completely normal and expected incidents of task paralysis. Take a break, take a walk, or find some other activity that takes you away from the project long enough to collect and calm yourself, then observe and identify what you’re feeling. If you can, get some exercise. The physical movement, increased oxygen intake, and happy chemicals released by your brain will all put you in a better state of mind to think clearly about your challenges and get mentally unstuck enough to meet them.
If you have a trusted mentor, colleague, or friend to turn to, share your experiences with them. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Chances are, they’ve been in the same state of mind and may have strategies to share with you about how to get unstuck and on the track to success. But even just talking about the challenges you are having allows you to externalize and examine them more clearly and methodically. If you are fortunate enough to find an experienced mentor, the advice you’re most likely to receive will sound a lot like the instructions for how to eat an elephant—one small bite at a time.
Whether you’re dealing with a mass of different tasks that is paralyzing just because of the sheer number of them, or you’re confronted with a project of complexity or size far beyond your comfort zone, breaking things into component parts, discrete tasks, and then ordering them by priority and urgency can help you begin to see a path toward progress. As you break things up into bite-sized pieces, write each of them down. When the fear of a seemingly insurmountable task causes your thoughts to swirl like a tornado in your head, reducing discrete, achievable tasks to writing will help calm the storm. Focus first on the tasks that are smallest and easiest to accomplish. In other words, identify some easy wins. Once you’ve reduced the large and complex to a collection of the discrete and simple, if you find yourself still stuck wondering which task to do first, just pick one—any one, the easiest one, something that you know you can do. When you can organize and order a series of smaller tasks that you can then envision completing one-by-one, you should be able to move yourself into action to start working through the smaller tasks in turn. Repeating this process again and again will eventually allow you to recognize that the project initially appearing so impossibly complex and overwhelming has become manageable by its component parts. As you reach completion of the first small task, then the second, then the next, you should start to feel mounting momentum until you are completely unstuck from the fear-induced paralysis.
If the process of breaking down the project into component parts makes you realize that you cannot possibly complete them all on your own in the time allotted, then find help. Getting the work done well and on time is far more important than trying to appear as an invincible superhero. You will demonstrate strength and good judgment when you are candid, with yourself or with your client or supervising lawyer, about what you can and cannot do on your own. Don’t let fear of appearing weak or incapable suck you back into a state of paralysis, worrying not just about the immensity of the project but now also the fear of appearing unfit to do it all.
If you’re still having trouble getting started after you’ve broken down your project and identified any help you may need, see if you can simplify your environment outside your project. Are your office surroundings noisy or full of random interruptions and distracting stimulation? When you are overwhelmed by a task, your mind will be more susceptible to distraction and you may find yourself more attentive to each incoming email that holds the promise of distracting your mind from the task that has you frozen. To break the distraction, take your first small task and find a quieter place to work until you complete it. Once you can free yourself from your task paralysis by accomplishing a series of discrete tasks, you will also find yourself better equipped to ignore the environmental distractions that were so alluring to you in your paralysis.
Breaking down a complex and intimidating task into discrete manageable parts is as close to a magic solution as you’re likely to find. Admittedly, it sounds simpler than it can be in practice, but with persistence, patience, and a little courage, you will be able—bite by bite—to eat that elephant. Once you’ve confronted and conquered task paralysis, you will be able to recognize it and manage through it a little more easily the next time. Success begets success. And while the anxiety and intimidation may reappear, they should lessen over time until you gain the confidence and the certainty that you can push through these feelings and manage your projects successfully.