Getting Started on a Good Note: How to Avoid Burnout During the Semester

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A semester is a long time –14 full weeks of classes (not counting reading week and exam period). That’s about 70 days, 1,680 hours, or a whopping 100,800 minutes spent in a whirlwind of attending lectures, participating in extra curricular activities, and struggling through papers and problem sets. Of course, you have to make time to sleep, and also maybe visit the gym more than twice a semester.

 With all that, it’s no wonder students throw around comments like “burned out” and “overwhelmed” as soon as one month after school starts. And more often than not, there comes a point sometime in the year where the to-do list seems longer than humanly possible to complete and it seems like there are physically not enough hours in the day to juggle all of the meetings and classes on the calendar.

The long-term answer is simple: don’t overcommit and become better at time management. But you just want to know what to do right now. What’s the first step that you should take to dig yourself out of the overwhelming void?

Stress and time management is a highly variable process and depends on a given individual’s innate coping tendencies, but one concrete method of organizing long lists of tasks is called the Eisenhower Matrix (Jyothi and Parkavi 2016). Named for a famously organized and efficient former president, the premise of the Eisenhower Matrix is to divide the mess of tasks into four neat quadrants, organized by two metrics: urgency and importance. Urgency is fairly self-explanatory; a paper due tomorrow at noon is technically more urgent than a problem set due the next night at 11:59PM. Importance is a more flexible continuum in that the user defines what is potentially most impactful on life factors someone “cares” about the most. For example, a mini-quiz is likely less important than an exam worth 30% of the final grade, but it also may not be, if the exam is for a pass-fail class and your quiz grade would make the difference between an A and a B.

Divided by quadrants, the matrix would look like this:

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 While it may seem like everything is important and urgent, the key to a functional matrix is to put a maximum of 2-3 items in the “do it now” section. Not everything will be due right this second, and organizing what would otherwise have been a long list into the four quadrants will break up the to-dos into manageable chunks. You might also find that there are a surprising number of tasks that can be discarded or delegated. When the whirlwind hits, it’s all too easy to feel like you are in charge of everything and that the sole bearer of responsibility is you.

There are also good habits that could be implemented at any time, to mitigate or prevent feeling overwhelmed. According to psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff, actively being mindful and focusing on one activity at a time, whether it be an assignment or simply breathing/meditating, can restore a sense of being under control and not being pulled in all directions simultaneously. And if motivation for beginning work is low, setting a timer for ten, five, even two minutes and agreeing to focus for that amount of time can jump-start the workflow that can potentially last much longer. If, after several short sessions of focusing, you find that motivation is still low, leaving the work for a little bit of time and engaging in an activity that brings you joy can restore the mood.

Life is tough, but so are college students. There will inevitably be rough stretches of days or weeks during the semester, but all stressful times eventually pass. Best of luck with this new semester, and remember that anyone can maintain a balanced life with a little bit of thought and care!