Dealing with a heavy workload

Reducing stress and staying ahead

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Falling behind isn’t a sign of failure, It happens to everyone. What’s important is how you move forward from setbacks taking control of the situation and continuing to work towards your goals.

There are many differences between high school and university, or tertiary, studies. One of the biggest is that you are solely accountable for managing your schedule and commitments at university once you leave secondary study.

High school activities are typically bound between set hours, usually 9 to 3. Every class lasts for a nominated time, there is a break for lunch and your teachers are aware of your overall workload. But at further studies, classes can occur at any time, could last for several hours, lecturers will have little to no visibility on your other coursework and many assessment activities are based on group work. Then, of course, many tertiary students also have work, family and social commitments all competing for precious time.

If you haven’t had to plan a schedule before, one of the most important things to remember is that time is fixed: there are 24 hours in every day. Most people spend about 8 hours, or a third of every day, asleep. That leaves 16 hours each day to attend classes, study, do group assignments, commute, eat, exercise, socialise and possibly work. Those activities eat up the time pretty quickly, and before you know it, another week is over. And if you’re not careful about managing your study commitments, you could find that there’s a lot of work that just doesn’t get done because you’ve run out of time.

Prioritising all of your work is a vital time management strategy that ensures you complete the most important tasks first, whilst also retaining a view on all of your commitments.

Taking the time up front – at the start of the semester, month, week and day – to plan effectively is a valuable investment. The payoff is a well-planned, realistic schedule that is achievable, meaning your stress levels will also be manageable.

Before you begin prioritising, it’s important to remember this: Not everything can be the most important thing that you need to work on. You should only work on one thing at a time, because tackling your commitments one at a time is the most effective way to complete everything on your to do list. Studies show that multi-tasking actually reduces your productivity by 40%. That means it takes longer to complete many concurrent tasks well than the same number of tasks one after the other. In addition, our brains aren’t made to divide their attention. When our brains do this over a long time it damages our ability to concentrate and complete tasks well. Multi-tasking causes constant interruption to concentration, causes “cognitive overload” and dulls reactions from the part of the brain responsible for empathy, cognitive and emotional control.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a really useful tool if you’re new to prioritising. As the name suggests, former US president Dwight Eisenhower developed it. It’s a simple four-quadrant box that helps identify what you should be working on. This is also an approach you can carry through to your career once you finish tertiary studies.

As you can see from the example, the box has two axes: urgent on the horizontal axis and important on the vertical axis.
Urgent tasks may need to be done immediately, such as replying to messages about a group assignment, attending a lecture or providing emergency cover for a shift at work.
Important tasks contribute to your long-term success and could include things like assignments, study and internships.
Each box in the grid represents a combination of those two values:
Box 1: Urgent and important
Box 2: Important, but not urgent
Box 3: Urgent, but not important
Box 4: Neither urgent nor important

Write a list of all your tasks. As well as your tertiary obligations, don’t forget to include home, work, family, social, sporting and any other commitments. Now, map each item on your list into one of the four boxes in the grid.

You can read more about The Eisenhower Matrix in Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

We also recommend diarising your key exam dates and deadlines. That’s a good fallback to ensure there you don’t forget what’s coming up and will also help assign tasks to the boxes discussed above.