What to Do When You Feel Overwhelmed in College

A 30-Minute Plan of Attack Can Help You Recharge and Refocus

Student thinking in classroom
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Not everyone graduates from college; doing so is a huge deal because it's an incredibly difficult journey. It's expensive. It takes a long time, it requires a heck of a lot of dedication, and there often never seems to be any rest from what other people expect of you. In fact, it's sometimes easier to feel smothered by your responsibilities than it is to feel in control. So just what can you do when you feel overwhelmed in college?

Fortunately, being in college means that you have both the desire and ability to figure out how to make things work -- even if you aren't feeling like you can. Take a deep breath, start simply, and then show 'em what you're made of.

What to Do When You Feel Overwhelmed in College

First, be bold and block off 30 minutes from your schedule. It can be right now; it can be in a few hours. The longer you wait, of course, the longer you'll feel stressed out and overwhelmed. The sooner you can make a 30-minute appointment with yourself, the better.

Once you've reserved yourself for 30 minutes, set a timer (try using the alarm on your phone) and use your time as follows:

  • Step One: 5 Minutes. Grab a pen or use your computer, tablet, or smartphone and make lists of what you have to do. And while this may sound easy, there's one catch: instead of making a long, running list, divide it up by sections. What do you need to do for your Chem 420 class? What do you need to do as club vice chair? What do you need to do for your financial paperwork? Create, in essence, a bunch of mini-lists and organize them by topic.
  • Step Two: 5 Minutes. Mentally walk through your schedule for the rest of the week (or, at the very least, the next 5 days). Where do you absolutely have to be (like class) and where do you want to be (like a club meeting)? Use whatever time management system you have to mark down what you have to do and what you want to do.
  • Step Three: 10 Minutes. Break down your calendar using your micro lists. What must be done today? What must be done tomorrow? What can wait until tomorrow? What can wait until next week? Be brutal with yourself, too; there are only so many hours in a day and only so much you can reasonably expect yourself to do. What can wait? What cannot? Assign to-do items from your lists to various days in a way that sets reasonable expectations about how much you can get done in a certain amount of time.
  • Step Four: 5 Minutes. Spend a few minutes to specifically break down how you are going to spend the rest of your day (or night) today. Allocate as much time as possible in your schedule, making sure to account for things like breaks and meals. In essence: How will you spend the next 5-10 hours?
  • Step Five: 5 Minutes. Spend your final 5 minutes getting yourself and your space ready to work. Do you need to go for a brisk walk? Clean up a work space in your room? Head to the library? Get some water and coffee? In essence: get yourself moving and prepare your environment so that you can hit the ground running.

Once your 30 minutes are up, you'll have made to-do lists, organized your schedule, planned out the rest of your day (or night), and prepared yourself to start.

This, ideally, will allow you to focus on the tasks at hand over the next few days; instead of always worrying about studying for an upcoming exam, you can tell yourself, "I'm studying for my exam on Thursday night. Right now I must finish this paper by midnight." Consequently, instead of feeling overwhelmed, you can feel in charge and know that your plan of attack will allow you to finally get things done. You got this!