I think it’s safe to say we have all been there. Despite your best intentions, whether you have taken on too much or overestimated how long you can focus in a given day, the work has piled up and you’re stressing out about all that you need to do before the end of term. Boy, have I been there and more than once too.
I’m not much of a gamer, but a concept I have always liked about video games is the option to hit reset. No matter how badly I felt I had messed up my term, I could start over from the beginning with a fresh slate.
Though this option doesn’t exist in real life, you can still apply a “reset” to completely change your approach to the term at any point to finish strong. Here is a process to reconsider your approach and face the overwhelm head on, which starts with writing down every little thing that is weighing on you.
Do a “brain dump”
With a pen and paper, write down everything that is competing for your attention right now. These things might be readings or assignments for classes, papers your supervisor asked you to read, tasks to be done around the house, things related to your job or job search - even feelings and worries that are playing on repeat. You don’t have to organize them in a particular way; just keep going until you can’t think of another thing that isn’t already written down.
If you would prefer to use a computer or tablet instead, that works too. By writing down any pesky thoughts, a practice called a “brain dump,” you can stop worrying about forgetting things and start tackling them.
When you’re done dumping that brain and your mind is a blank slate, it’s time to use that freed mental energy to consider your term so far.
First, if you are 100% satisfied with how you have performed this term, that’s fantastic. Well done! Skip this step and keep doing what you’re doing. Maybe skip the whole post – I don’t know why you’re here in the first place.
But if you aren’t, hear me out.
Even under “normal” circumstances, focused studying and writing is difficult, and to say that this year has been challenging is a gross understatement. So, if you didn’t keep to the plan you set yourself at the start of term or meet whatever goals you set in the past, please show yourself compassion and forgive yourself for not being at your peak performance so far this term.
Reflect on the previous 6 weeks
Now, with a clear head and a clear conscience, reflect on the term so far and think about your habits and strategies. Focus on what you found worked for you and you want to keep moving forward, what you want to stop doing from here on, and what you want to start doing for the rest of the term.
Do you fall asleep if you read lying down? Then put that on your stop list. Does working at a standing desk or sitting on an exercise ball keep you focused? Keep doing that. Do you get burned out after shorter periods of work? Then start breaking your study sessions into 25-minute pomodoro sessions.
If you would like to download the worksheet in the figure above, click here.
For more ideas on good writing habits to start, check out our recent blog post from Nadine Fladd about her writing practice.
Schedule with time blocking
Well done for making it this far!
Now, let’s figure out a weekly schedule for you that works for the whole term, and that way you know what you’re doing each day before you even get started.
Open up a calendar app or a spreadsheet to get started.
FIRST: Build a frame with rigidly-scheduled tasks
Start with the items that have to happen at a specific time and you have no choice over what time that is. These include live lectures and tutorials that will not be posted later, but also includes personal responsibilities such as: shifts for your job, caring for family members, live-streamed fitness classes, and planned calls with family/friends (especially if they are in different time zones).
If it is important to you and you can’t change the time, block these in first. Start by filling in these points from your brain dump first and cross them out as they become part of your schedule.
SECOND: Schedule in the deadlines of projects from your brain dump
Next, eliminate larger projects from your brain dump.
If your class has a larger project due at the end of term, you can also block time to work on it in your schedule. Put the deadline in your calendar and work backwards, considering how long you need to complete it and starting when you have all of the information you need. These blocks should also include what you will complete during that time to stay on track.
Read through each course syllabus to think about what else you need work on for each course. Take whatever amount of time you assume the task will take and then DOUBLE IT. Then block that time off.
If you’re stuck with how to break down the project into smaller steps, the library’s Assignment Planner is a great tool. Pick your project type, your start and end dates, and you will be given a schedule and what needs to be done by when. You can even export the schedule into your preferred calendar app.
THIRD: Block out sections for ongoing tasks that can be done anytime
Next, go through the brain dump list and schedule time to work on tasks that repeat throughout the term.
Scheduling time to dedicate to certain tasks is called “time blocking,” and it can help you make sure you keep on top of ongoing work or larger assignments that you may not have deadlines for. For example, if one of your courses has a weekly discussion, block out some time each week to do the related readings and prepare your answers. This is also great for studying and doing practice problems.
The nice part about this step is you can change it to fit your preferences. For example, if you aren’t great at mornings (who honestly is?) then either schedule easier tasks to do then or, if you can, don’t schedule anything before a certain time. You can also block out time for exercise, or even just going outside to get some vitamin D from the sun.
FOUR: Take care of what is left
If you're anything like me, you have things on that list that do not have a deadline because you've made it up to avoid your actual responsibilities. Do you really need to put all of your books in alphabetical order? No. Or at the very least, not right now.
If some of the things left on your brain dump are feelings and worries, acknowledge and explore them. Talk about them with someone you trust like a family member, friend, or someone from counselling services, journal about them, or even write poetry about them.
Identify your hiding places and plan for them
I am, admittedly, a recovering productivity junkie and have fallen prey to New Years’ resolutions and/or “reinventing myself” marketing but applied it at any time in the year as a real-life reset.
Back in my day (cue Fellow Kids meme), I have applied this reset mentality to planners. While I was a student, I spent a relatively small fortune on planners and notebooks and spent hours filling them out. Despite my best intentions, I wouldn’t meet the expectations I set for myself in the planner and wanted to avoid it. This prompted me to buy a new planner – which would need to be filled out – and the cycle began once more.
Jon Acuff, in his book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, would call this my “hiding place.” Rather than doing what you really need to do, your hiding places are what you do to feel productive but ultimately don’t need to do. A common example is cleaning/ organizing (i.e.procrasticleaning) but anything – even planning itself – can be a hiding place.
Once you have identified yours, you can then make a plan to either avoid it or bring yourself out of hiding. Using cleaning as an example, set a timer to tell you when to get back to work or stick to one small area. Yes, you may do the dishes but then you really need to get to work. When I get that planning itch, I can schedule in time to do that but keep it to a 30-minute limit.
Congratulations! You are now “reset.” I hope you have conquered the overwhelm and feel empowered and motivated to take on the rest of the term.
Is your new schedule perfect? No, probably not. You can always make adjustments after seeing if whether certain times are working for you or really drag. If you somehow scheduled too much time for working on assignments, just scale it back.
The important thing is that you spend more time studying than you do working on your schedule. Remember: the most important part of this, or any plan, is following through.
If I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably a good thing that you can’t reset things in your life – to reset would erase all of the hard work you’ve done so far and all that you have accomplished. As hard as it is, you’ve got to take stock of what you have right now and move forward with that.