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Madeleine Shaw

Article by: Madeleine Shaw, Executive coach, speaker & facilitator

From time to time I have an anxiety dream that I’m sinking in quicksand*. It is a truly nightmarish concept (at least to me). It also works well as a metaphor for the experience many of us have when we are overloaded and overwhelmed at work.

You are in “quicksand” when you are extraordinarily busy and trying to get out of it by working harder and harder, while only becoming more exhausted, sinking deeper and falling further behind.


In the work context, struggling harder looks like working longer hours, cancelling holidays (or working through them), doing everything yourself so it “gets done right”, sacrificing your personal time and health, and self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs. Not good.

Q: What is the first thing you should do if find yourself stuck in quicksand?

A: Stop struggling.

Q: What do most people do when they are stuck in quicksand?

A: Struggle harder.

Particularly for lawyers (speaking from experience), there are some factors that can make this particularly acute. Do any of these look familiar?

  • Perfectionism
  • A strong work ethic; a drive to complete and succeed
  • A work culture of long hours and high expectations
  • A focus on the negative: risk, problems and what could go wrong
  • Fear of failure

These tendencies can lead you to lean further into the problem – throwing more effort at it, sure that if only you try hard enough you’ll get through it. But if throwing more good energy after bad worked, it would have worked by now.

The paradox for many lawyers is this: these traits that are weighing you down are likely the very same traits that are in many ways responsible for your success. It’s no wonder it’s hard to let go of them!

Rather than try to eliminate these drivers, it’s helpful to keep enough of them to reap their benefits but to identify where they are being overplayed and therefore counterproductive.

I looked up an article about how to escape actual quicksand. It applies well to work too. If you’re sinking: stop struggling. Then:

1.    Make yourself as light as possible – toss your bag, jacket and shoes

For us that means culling. Can you hand over or pause any matters? Stop going to some meetings? Or perhaps even ditch the weight of your high standards and aim for good enough? Which is, in fact, good enough.

2.    Try to take a few steps backwards

When were you last on solid ground? What resources can help you now – Friends? Family? Perhaps even practical methodologies like that amazing inbox management technique you used to love but have stopped using?

3.    Keep your arms up and out of the quicksand

It can be tempting to look for who to blame, but that won’t actually get you out of the quicksand. It’s more constructive at this point to keep your focus on solutions.

4.    Try to reach for a branch or person’s hand to pull yourself out

Wanting to fix it alone can be a trap for lawyers, but help helps. Consider family, friends, colleagues, your EAP, your GP, fantastic public resources such as Beyond Blue or – yes – a coach.

5.    Take deep breaths

Fight/flight/freeze mode inhibits your higher order problem solving capacity. Slow, smooth breathing helps to re-set your brain and body in the moment so you can think more effectively. I also include taking care of physical wellbeing more generally under this point. Quick wins in the form of prioritising healthy boundaries, sleep, exercise and good nutrition will really help.

6.    Move slowly and deliberately

For many of us, feeling we should be making massive changes only heightens the overwhelm, leaving us even less likely to change anything. Small, iterative steps are more likely to stick. Start where you are, make a small change, see how it goes, then think about the next one.

Prevention is better than the cure for both real and metaphorical quicksand.

Once you’re back on solid ground, the bigger and more sustainable win comes from understanding how you ended up in quicksand in the first place. As the article suggests, “Know your quicksand danger zones”. This is partly about the terrain and partly about how you travel through it. Identifying those traits that seem helpful but actually hold you back - and building your skill at getting them into balance - is where you’ll find long term improvement. 

*I also have a dream in which it’s my first day of work in a law firm and I’m being shown to my desk and handed piles of files while having no idea what to do and no desire to be there. Hmm..

Madeleine Shaw

Madeleine Shaw

Madeleine Shaw is an in-demand executive coach, speaker and facilitator with over two decades of experience working with lawyers: the first as one of them (including 5 years as corporate counsel) and the second as a coach, helping them work through difficult career questions and find progress and satisfaction again. For over 12 years now she has worked at the intersection of mindset and evidence-based resilience and wellbeing, including several very well received sessions for ACC. She is interested in helping people be great leaders and leaders be great people.

I am delighted to be partnering with ACC Australia to deliver Thriving as a Lawyer. This is an 8 week, small-group program to help you set up your work and life so that you can thrive in both.