Strategies to Combat Study Overwhelm, Overload and feeling Out of Control

It’s that time of year when the workload is increasing, assignments start piling up and the reality of your study habits (or not!) starts to set in. Signs that you may be in overwhelm and feeling stressed include forgetfulness, not sleeping well, the feeling of being perpetually sick, trouble concentrating and focusing, unable to stay on a task, and emotional changes such as being moody or crying easily.*

If you are feeling overwhelmed, overloaded, or out of control here are some strategies for you.

Overwhelm is usually caused by 3 main factors. The first is disorganisation. You know you are here when you feel you are constantly reacting to what is being given to you. Without a plan, you rush to get things completed, possibly at the last minute, and are not sure what is to happen next. The second factor is procrastination. This often feels like you are drowning in the workload and are avoiding doing anything with multiple activities or tasks that are more pleasurable. I’ll do it tomorrow is a favourite cry from someone procrastinating. Thirdly, overwhelm may be caused from an overcommitment. This is promising you will get tasks completed when you do not have enough hours in the day. This may happen when several assignments are due in the same week as your major sporting event or stage debut.

When all three are combined; disorganisation, procrastination and overcommitment it can lead to chronic overwhelm and stress.

Strategies to combat study Overwhelm, Overload and feeling Out of Control

Here are some tip and strategies to help.

Get Clear and Prioritise

Firstly, get clear on what needs to be done and prioritise your tasks.  Signs of overwhelm and stress include forgetfulness, not sleeping well, the feeling of being perpetually sick, trouble concentrating and focusing, unable to stay on a task and emotional changes such as being moody or crying easily.

You may need to set aside 60-75 minutes to do this. It might seem like you don’t have any spare time to do this, however the time spent here will set the wheels in motion to help you move forward. Follow these steps:

  1. Make a list of all the tasks which are stressing you and looming. You might do this on paper, a word document, on a spread sheet, Google Calendar tasks, or use Notes on your phone. I recommend doing this on a spread sheet because then you can sort the list later. Write everything on the list – big, small and insignificant tasks. Whist the list on its own can seem daunting it is better to have the information out of your head, this is the first step to quashing the overwhelm.
  2. Prioritise the tasks. Next to each task write an A, B, or C.
    A is for “Must Do’s.” This is for tasks which are critical to complete, high priority or close to deadlines. B means it is a “Should Do.” Use this for tasks which are medium priority, will require completion in time and not as urgent as the A tasks. Write a C next do all the tasks which are “Nice To Do.” This is for low priority and low consequence tasks. If it doesn’t get completed soon, it will be OK.
  3. Order the A tasks. If you are doing this on a spread sheet you can now sort your data into the A, B & C tasks.
  4. Code the A tasks in order of importance with the numbers 1,2,3 etc. You may do this for the B tasks as well.
  5. Chunk each task. Start with your A1 task and break it into smaller achievable steps. This makes it easier to see your progress. For example, if you have a Maths graphing task, your chunks may look like this;
    – collect data for graph
    – find graph paper
    – plot the x and y axis
    – Label the axis
    – add data points
    – make a key
    – write an analysis of the graph and interpret the data
  6. Now start with task A1 and focus on that until it is completed. Even if you get interrupted, keep coming back to this task until it is completed, or you have crossed off some of the key chunks causing you to feel like you have made a significant start.
  7. Continue with A2, A3 and so on until you have completed each task. It may take an hour, a day or a week. When the A tasks are completed move onto the B’s.
  8. At the end of the week, re-evaluate the list. You may be able to cross a whole task off your list, or at least chunks of it. This should feel good and show the progress you have made. Write or reorder the list for the following week and start with your A1 job.

Establish a Routine

Next, create a routine that works for you. Being productive is a system and series of routines and habits. This is the building blocks of success. Choose a simple routine to start your morning. It might be with some exercise, a great breakfast or goal setting and then your study. Whatever you choose, stick with it for 3 weeks. High performance coach Robin Sharma declares, “when you win your morning, you win the day.”  Afternoon and evening routines work the same way. Establish habits before and during your study time and stick to them.

Say No!

Decide what matters to you and say no to anything that is a distraction and isn’t aligned with your goals and priorities. No doesn’t mean forever, it means not right now.

Gamify Your Study

Turn your study into a game with mini rewards. Set yourself mini targets and award yourself with mini breaks, a walk, some brain food or a task that you would rather be doing. Download the free iStudyAlarm onto your phone to time yourself for 20 minutes study and a timed 5-minute break to keep you on track.

Ask For Help

Learning does not have to be a solo event. Ask for help when you are stuck. Call or message a friend, ask your teacher for guidance when you are unsure. Find a mentor or a counsellor if required.

Focus on your Why

Having a bigger purpose and goals are one sure why to help you lower the overwhelm or stress. Why are you studying? What will you gain from this work and dedication now? Imagine yourself 1-5 years in the future doing the dream job, living your imagined life. Tell yourself, “This is why I am doing it.”

Calm Yourself

Lowering the stress is essential for productivity and focus. Go for a walk, mediate, or do some gentle stretching to release tension. Try journaling your thoughts and feelings as they are often better out that in. Have a bath, listen to music, or have a dance party for one can help to discharge negative feelings.

Other ideas to keep you productive include:

  • using study alerts on your phone as reminders to get started
  • turn off distractions such as social media, spell check (go back later and fix the errors,) notifications and the TV
  • remember everything is hard before it is easy, and learning takes time
  • clean your workspace. Clutter free environments are best for focus and concentration
  • take short study breaks to refresh and revive and get back to into the flow asap
  • recognise that a bit of pressure is a good thing and use this to your advantage

Finally remember not to link your personal worth to how much you do. Wearing ‘busy as a badge’ can be toxic. It is OK not to be a workaholic. Keep in mind you are more than the sum of your achievements. Take time to have fun and do the activities which bring you joy and energy. Self-care can ultimately lead to more productivity.

*If you think you could have an anxiety disorder, depression or a mental illness, please talk to a mental health professional


Published on Tuesday, March 1st, 2022, under Study Skills

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

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