How to Avoid Overwhelm During Bar Study

Don’t look all the way up the hill. Just look 10 feet in front of you and turn the pedals. Wise words sometimes come from the strangest places. A triathlon coach gave me that advice once, after noticing me wince at the huge hill between me and the end of a painfully long bike ride.

During the first few weeks of my bar study I felt just like I was looking up that hill. The sheer volume of law to memorize is enough to send anyone into the red zone. Even worse, overwhelm tends to trigger lost confidence, fear, and other less-than-fun emotions. But with a few simple strategies you can keep those overwhelming thoughts from knocking you off your game.

1. Figure out what overwhelms you.

Your GPS can’t give you directions until it finds you. So to get away from overwhelm, you first need to find out what overwhelms you. Pay attention when you feel overwhelmed and look for the cause. Did you just talk to other bar students? Did you start thinking about everything you have to read?

2. Avoid the things that overwhelm you.

Now the simple solution – stop doing what overwhelms you. Although not possible for everything, simply noticing your triggers and avoiding them can stop many of your overwhelming thoughts. If talking to students on the way out of class makes you feel bad, don’t do it. If thinking about everything you have to learn overwhelms you, change your focus to the tasks for that day.

3. Don’t look all the way up the hill.

When I looked all the way up that hill, I felt completely overwhelmed and defeated. And the more defeated I felt, the harder the hill was to climb. My thoughts actually made that hill harder for me. But when I focused only on the space 10 feet in front of me and just kept turning the pedals, all of the sudden I was at the top of the hill.

Just like climbing a hill on a bike, when you focus on everything you have to learn, memorize, and practice, you may feel overwhelmed and defeated, causing the work to feel even more difficult. But when you focus only on the short term – what you need to learn that hour, or day, or week – you can accomplish the same work easier without those distracting feelings.

4. Find a mantra.

When you feel overwhelmed, the easiest way to calm yourself down is to repeat a mantra. When I felt overwhelmed during bar study, I would say “You eat an elephant one bite at a time.” It’s an odd saying, since no one actually eats elephants, but it worked to remind me to just keep going, one step at a time.

Learning to notice and work with overwhelm can have a profound impact on your day-to-day mental state. Remember that the bar exam is a marathon, not a sprint. Just keep turning those pedals, don’t look up, and before you know it, you will be at the top of that hill.


Lauren Firestein is a study and test strategy coach and is the founder of the Mind Over Bar Course, a supplemental course that helps students conquer the mental challenges of the bar exam. The course teaches in-the-moment practices students can use to cope with overwhelm and other negative emotions that influence bar success.