Feeling overwhelmed comes with the territory of being a student - and that goes double if you’re juggling your studies along with a job or family responsibilities. No matter how much you try to be prepared, you’re going to encounter situations where there are simply too many tasks on your to-do list to complete on-time. Maybe your instructors have all decided to pile assessments on at the same time. Or maybe you’ve been assigned more pages of reading to complete within the week than you undertook throughout the course of last year. Whatever the case may be, you’re feeling totally overwhelmed by your course work. So what should you do in these situations? Although it might be tempting to give up and spend the day catching up on your favourite show instead, there is a way out of this mess. Use these ten tips below to prioritise your overwhelming workload effectively.
Tip #1 - Write everything down
Too often, the feeling of being overwhelmed comes not from actually having too many tasks on your plate, but from not knowing how many tasks are ahead of you. To get the clear understanding you’ll need to prioritise effectively, begin by making a list of all the projects, assignments and assessments that are ahead of you. Note the deadlines associated with each of these tasks, and jot down a brief description of what you need to do to meet them.
Tip #2 - Triage your assessments
Now, look at your to-do list the way a triage nurse looks at patients in the emergency room. These nurses must quickly decide which patients require immediate care and which ones can wait - even if their situations are serious. In looking at your list, you might notice that, although it feels like everything on your schedule is due at once, one of your assessments is actually still two weeks out. Noticing which items on your list are important, but not urgent, will help you find your way out of the weeds.
Tip #3 - Consider your past performance
As you’re triaging your to-do list, consider your past performance as well. We’re certainly not suggesting that you intentionally underperform in any of your studies, but if you have two assessments on the same day where one is for a class you’re doing well in and the other is for a class you’re about to fail, it just makes sense to focus more of your energy on the assessment for which your grade could determine your pass/fail status.
Tip #4 - Break down required timelines
Another technique that’ll help you manage your feeling of overwhelm is to break down the specific steps required to complete every task on your to-do list. For best results, pair this practice with the two tips described above. Let’s suppose that you’ve got two assessments coming up, one of which involves an exam and the other which involves writing a five-page essay. To prepare for the exam, you might estimate that you’ll need four hours of study time to review the relevant materials. To write the paper, you’ll need to set aside one hour for research, two hours for writing and one hour for revisions. With your triaging priorities in mind, schedule these required work blocks into your schedule in a way that enables you to meet your top priorities on time. As you do this, you might actually be surprised. While writing a five-page essay might sound overwhelming, knowing that you only need to schedule three brief work blocks to complete it may make the project seem more manageable.
Tip #5 - Look for quick wins
Once you’ve completed the “planning” part of the equation and moved into “doing,” look for ways to knock a couple items off your to-do list quickly in order to benefit from what James Watson and Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winning scientists who discovered the structure of DNA call the “progress principle.” From their book, The Double Helix,
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
Tip #6 - Set your own deadlines
Another surprising “hack” that’ll help you turn your to-do list from overwhelming to manageable is to set your own deadlines - and to set them in such a way that you’ve got to hustle to meet them. This tip draws on the popular Parkinson's Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. In practice, what this means is that, if you know you’ve got to deliver that five-page essay in two weeks, it’ll take you the full two weeks to get it ready. But let’s say, instead, that - knowing you’ve got another examination due at the same time - you decide to set your own deadline that you’ll complete your essay tomorrow. Knowing that you only really need four hours to finish the project, setting - and enforcing - your own deadline will prevent you from dragging the project out unnecessarily.
Tip #7 - Look for underutilised time in your schedule
Some of you reading this are going to say, “what underutilised time?!” But stick with us ...Unless you’ve tracked the way you spend every minute of your days, there’s probably some excess that could be converted temporarily into study time. You’ve probably already cut out your TV time or nights out with friends, but could you order in a few meals and use the time you would have spent cooking on your school work? Could you skip your hour-long morning beauty routine? Even hiring a babysitter for an hour or two could give you the space needed to get on top of your to-do list.
Tip #8 - Quiet your inner perfectionist
As you’re working, don’t let your inner perfectionist slow you down. When you’re already behind, any work completed - even if it’s not your best effort - is better than getting nothing done because your finished product isn’t finished to your usual standards.
Tip #9 - Don’t neglect your health
When we’re stressed and overwhelmed, our natural inclination is to forgo sleep or to fill up on Maccas instead of cooking or ordering in a healthy meal. This is a huge mistake! The way you treat your body affects the level to which you’re able to perform, as well as your ability to conquer your to-do list. Make sure your diet continues to include superfoods and that you’re getting good sleep and some physical activity to perform your best.
Tip #10 - Talk to your trainer
Finally, if your current overwhelming situation is being caused by extenuating circumstances - maybe an unexpected illness or death in the family - don’t be afraid to talk to your trainer. Don’t abuse this privilege, but remember that they’re people too. And depending on your situation, they may be able to grant you an extension so that you can complete your work at a later date.
Have another tip for overcoming a super-stressful workload? Share your recommendations by leaving us a comment below.