Complete guide to stress management
and time management for students.
Last modified: 05/10/2020
There are a lot of times in life when it is pretty normal to feel overwhelmed. Making a big life change such as heading to university for the first time (especially if you’re living away from home for the first time too), feeling under pressure during exam season or making decisions about your next move post-university are all times when stress can catch you out and make you feel like you can’t cope.
Prevention is better than cure, so while managing your time and proactively taking steps to stop yourself being overworked won’t stop you from feeling the pressure completely, it can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.
Let’s take a look at some of the best stress management and time management tips that we know, to help you get ahead before anxiety sets in, or if you’re already feeling the strain, to take control of that energy and put it to good use. Supporting your body to be healthy year-round will help you to cope with stress before it starts. Many of these are things that we know we should be doing but when things get busy, it is easy to forget about prioritising them.
Take care of yourself to support your mind
It is almost impossible to avoid the physical effects of mental pressure, but keeping your body healthy will help to support you mentally when times get tough. These points are all well-known and if you can implement these into your life before it gets tough, then you’ll find it easier to cope during stressful moments.
If you’re already feeling that panic, it is worth revisiting these points to help support yourself from the inside out, but we’ll have more advice for that further down.
Get enough sleep
When you’ve just got to university and you’re making new friends, having fun and adjusting to the workload of your course, there are a lot of times that you might find yourself missing hours of sleep. Even if you’re not going to social events, you might find you’re tempted to stay up playing games, watching Netflix or just aimlessly scrolling your phone. When essays are due or exam time rolls around and you have deadlines, it is easy to find yourself burning the midnight oil. Unfortunately, missing sleep is the quickest way to put extra pressure on yourself, since everything gets harder when you’re sleep deprived. Trust us – we’ve been there!
When you miss out on crucial hours of sleep, you’ll find it harder to concentrate in lectures and to complete your work. Both stress and lack of sleep also has the knock-on effect of making the body more susceptible to illness so ultimately, the more sleep you miss, the more likely you’ll end up succumbing to whichever cough, cold or flu is doing the rounds, since your body isn’t getting enough time to repair itself.
Practicing good sleep hygiene can help you to sleep better:
- Try to sleep at regular times
- Put your phone down an hour before you need to fall asleep – this will help to ensure that blue light doesn’t interrupt your circadian rhythm
- Use blue light filters on your phone, laptop or tablet in the evening (or if you have them, use blue light blocking glasses)
- Have a warm bath or shower before bed
- Write your to-do list, or your plan for the next day
- If you struggle to nod off, try one of the many apps to help you sleep that are available to download for free, such as white noise generators and meditation guidance.
Everybody has different needs when it comes to sleep, but most of us need 7-9 hours per night. If you find you’re waking up groggy, look at the time that you’re falling asleep and when you need to wake up. Each sleep cycle takes around 90 minutes, so aim to wake up near the end of a cycle. This will mean you’re not in the deep REM sleep that, if you’re woken from, makes you feel fuzzy-headed. It may mean you need to adjust the time you fall asleep or wake up slightly. To make it easier to work out when you should fall asleep or wake up, try an online sleep calculator which will tell you the optimal time for you to wake up.
We get it – there are plenty of reasons to skip your usual workout when you’re at university, especially when your deadlines are looming. But when it comes to stress, there are a lot more reasons to keep the promise to yourself to work out when you told yourself that you would! If you’re already committed to a workout regime, whether you’re a runner, you’re a YouTube workout fan or you have a great yoga practice, then perfect – that can continue while you’re studying, or if space is tight then you might need to find an alternative.
Doing exercise doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be in the gym, pounding the treadmill every single day – unless that’s what you enjoy doing, of course! Finding the type of exercise that you really enjoy will mean you are much more likely to get out the door and get to it. Combining your social life with your need to get moving can be a great way to encourage yourself to actually do your exercise, as well as enabling you to multitask while keeping fit. A few examples of social sports are:
- Take part in, and train for team sports such as football, netball, hockey
- All types of dancing can be social, but none more so than partner dancing like salsa and Ceroc – you don’t even need a partner for most classes, since everyone dances with everyone. It’s fantastic cardio too!
- If you’re a runner or a cyclist, join a club so you don’t have to go out alone – it will help you stay committed to getting your trainers on!
- Combat sports such as boxing, martial arts or fencing
Not all of these will fit into your daily, or sometimes even your weekly schedule but mixing up your workouts will benefit your overall health. Trying new things and having different activities to look forward to each week will also help to break up your workload and serve as something that you can look forward to when you have spent time on your coursework.
We all know that eating a balanced diet is important – takeaways every night, surviving on sandwiches, or just cooking frozen pizza and chips – it simply isn’t good for us! Every now and again, it is ok to have a few days like that, but if you’re not giving your body what it really needs for the majority of time then you’re going to end up feeling ill, one way or another.
Eating a range of foods, with plenty of fruit and vegetables is best for your overall health. Whether you choose to eat meat or not, experts recommend filling half your plate with vegetables, around a quarter of your meals should be protein and a quarter should be carbohydrate.
It doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming to eat healthily either. Budget supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi make it pretty cheap to access vegetables and protein, and you can make it even easier when time is tight by using frozen vegetables too.
As well as helping to keeping your body fit and healthy and ready to fight off any seasonal illnesses, eating a balanced diet will help you to stay within a healthy weight range. Maintaining your weight means your clothes will continue to fit, and you won’t have the added stress of needing to find cash to replace them, or having to face the additional challenge of losing the extra pounds to get back into your clothes.
Organise your space
Keeping your workspace organised will help you to focus and stay on track better when you’re working. Having the textbooks, notebooks and papers that you need close to your desk will enable you to work much more effectively, without digging through piles of stuff. Not only that, you’ll be able to see the exact books and notes that you need when you’re sorting your bag for that day’s lectures.
When you have mounds of washing in your room, or clutter everywhere, you’re likely to find that will have a pretty negative effect on your ability to concentrate. Mess can be a huge distraction and even if you can resist the urge to procrastinate, it will add more pressure as it reminds you of how much more you have left to do! If you really don’t have time to get your laundry done or to tidy your room, consider moving to a different space such as the library in order to stay on track.
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When stress kicks in
You’ve just realised you have a paper due the next day, or you’ve overspent your budget – you feel the rush of adrenaline and you know you need to take action. Sometimes though, you end up dealing with more stressors than you can cope with, and anxiety leaves you feeling like you need to run and hide. It isn’t nice when that happens, but there are a number of things you can do to help deal with that panic, and to get done what you need to get done.
Do a workout
When your body is under stress, it produces hormones that mimic the fight or flight response to danger. Unfortunately, our nervous system doesn’t know the difference between a predator attacking us in the wild, and a report that you’ve left to the night before the deadline to start – it just knows there is a reason to panic!
When you’re in panic mode, it might feel like the best thing to do is to sit down and crack on. That works for some people, but if you’ve got to the point of panic where you simply aren’t getting anywhere, then moving your body can be the answer to unlocking your mind. A quick run or an hour in the gym can help your body shift some of those hormones that are making us feel panicked. Even a walk or a 20 minute yoga session can help and the act of moving your body can help you to get your thoughts straight, since while you’re concentrating on your workout, your subconscious is at work. When you get back to your desk, you’re likely to feel much more refreshed and better equipped to tackle the work you need to do.
Use mindfulness techniques
Stopping to do some meditation might feel counterintuitive when you have a million and one things to do by the end of the week but just like getting enough sleep, it can be a crucial tool in taking care of your physical health.
Practicing deep breathing and using relaxing background music while using positive thinking and affirmations don’t have to take very much time out of your day. Knowing how to access the feelings of calm before you’re stressed will mean that when the adrenaline kicks in and you feel the first tendrils of panic, you’ll know how to calm your body and your mind.
Guided imagery exercises and visualisations can also be useful to help calm your body and your mind, and to help separate your mind from whatever is making you feel stressed. You can also use visualisations to help mentally prepare yourself for exams or presentations – simply focusing on seeing yourself sitting the test or doing the presentation and performing well can help you to bring that vision to life (of course, you’ll need to put in the hard work as well – just visualising yourself passing your exam won’t make it happen if you don’t revise!). There are thousands of these types of exercises available online which can help you focus. All you need to do is plug in your headphones and listen while you’re sitting somewhere comfortably.
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Tips for time management
Keeping on schedule with your academic work throughout your time at university can be a challenge, especially if you’ve got involved with lots of extra clubs and societies. Once the first wave of enthusiasm to embrace absolutely everything has worn off and you’re into the first round of assignments for your modules, it is easy to start feeling like you have bitten off more than you can chew.
We can’t tell you how much you can actually manage – some students can be a member of several societies, have a job and still get firsts on all their assignments, while others might struggle to keep up with their workload without any society memberships but regardless of where you’re at, we can give you some pointers on how to manage your time effectively.
Schedule your time
We’ve already mentioned planning your week – how you want to do that planning is up to you! Rather than just writing a to-do list, blocking out time on your schedule can help you to make sure you won’t run out of time. There are different methods of scheduling your time, such as:
- Using a notebook and grid format to plan what you’re going to do for the hours in each day
- Using an academic diary with time blocks
- Utilising an online calendar (most email accounts have this and you can access your calendar through a web browser, an email management tool like Outlook or in an app on your phone, so you’re always up to date wherever you are).
You don’t have to stick to one method throughout the year but finding what works for you early on will mean you’re practiced and ready for when your workload ramps up. It is worth noting that once you enter the world of work, you’ll almost certainly be required to use an online calendar, so getting used to it now will mean one less thing to learn when you leave university!
When you’re planning your week, don’t forget you’ll need to schedule your workouts and time to do your laundry and food shopping – although you can do these when you like, they do take up time so planning for them means they are less likely to get forgotten. Remember that you can do some tasks simultaneously, so try and use your time efficiently where you can.
Great examples of when you can multitask include:
- If you take your clothes to a launderette, you can make use of the time that you need to be there by bringing your iPad, laptop or notes to work on.
- When you’re making a journey, use that time by listening to a podcast or making phone calls. (You might be phoning to book an appointment, to keep in touch with a family member or to sort out services like banking or your phone contract – whatever you need to do, you’ll be using your time more effectively!)
- While you’re doing a treadmill workout, watch recordings of your lectures or YouTube videos on topics that you need to revise (just be careful not to get distracted!)
Although your scheduling might feel restrictive, it doesn’t have to be set in stone. For example, if you’ve scheduled time to work on a certain assignment for two hours on Monday but it isn’t flowing then rather than waste time, you might switch to another essay that you’d planned to work on later in the week.
As long as it doesn’t mean you’re going to miss a deadline, there’s nothing wrong with that and it is definitely better to get some work done rather than none at all! Your schedule is your guide, and it is there to help keep you on track.
Work with your circadian rhythm
Are you an early bird, or a night owl? Some of us do better with our work between certain hours of the day, preferring to work either late into the night before heading for bed in the small hours, while others prefer to head to bed early and wake up before dawn to make the most of the quiet and stillness.
Establishing when you concentrate best and when your energy is high will mean you can make the most of the time that most suits your body and brain, and fit in things like exercise, at the right time for you too so that you don’t end up riding a wide-awake, post-exercise endorphin wave when you should be trying to nod off to sleep.
Take enough breaks
There are loads of different time management techniques that can help to keep you focused. A really popular technique to ensure you take enough breaks to keep you alert and on task is the Pomodoro Technique where you break tasks into timed intervals, separated by short breaks.
Usually the technique uses 25 minute slots to get work done, and goes something like this:
- Decide what you’re going to work on
- Set your timer (you can work with longer or shorter intervals if it works for you)
- Start work
- Stop work when your timer goes off. Add a checkmark to a piece of paper.
- When you have fewer than four checkmarks on your paper, take a short break (between 3-5 minutes) then go back to step 2 again. When you get to four checkmarks on your page, take a longer break (between 15-30 minutes)
- When you have completed four Pomodoro cycles, and have taken your break, start the whole process again from step 1.
Although 25 minutes isn’t a very long time, it is about the average amount of time that humans can typically concentrate well. Taking short breaks can actually aid your learning and concentration so even if you have reached a flow, it is a good idea to take the break when your buzzer goes. You can use the timer on your phone, an alarm clock or a kitchen timer for this technique.
Don’t just reach for your phone and sit to check your social media for those few minutes though – make a point of getting up, filling your water bottle and maybe taking a quick circuit of the library on your way back from the loo to get your blood moving.
If you know you can concentrate for much longer than 25 minutes, then there are a range of variations that might work for you, including working in 90 minute blocks so experiment until you find what works best. Don’t forget that every day is different, so if you normally work in 90 minute blocks but you’re struggling to reach 20 minutes today, switch it up and try working with the traditional 25 minute intervals. You’re more likely to get more done and you’ll feel less pressure by reducing the time.
Bust procrastination by doing ‘just five minutes’
Got a big task that you really can’t be bothered with? Most of us do, regularly! Unfortunately, procrastination is something that hits all of us at some point especially when it is a tedious or difficult thing – we simply ignore the task until the deadline is imminent or it becomes such a problem that we can’t ignore it anymore. The big problem with finding motivation is that we rarely feel it before we start something – the motivation actually kicks in after you have begun the task.
With that in mind, make a deal with yourself that you will only do five minutes of a task. Most of us can manage to do five minutes of anything – be it exercise, writing an essay or housework! Fully commit to whatever you have decided to do for a full five minutes, putting distractions aside (yes, that includes your phone!) and you’re likely to find that by the time you’ve achieved five minutes, you’ll be absorbed enough to carry on. If you’re not, you’ll at least be five minutes further ahead than you were.
Focus on one piece of work at a time
When you have a lot to do, it can feel completely overwhelming. Add the distraction of people around you, notifications and alerts on your phone and so on, and you can soon start to feel that you’re never going to get anywhere near finished.
If you haven’t scheduled your day on a calendar or a diary, then before you get started write a list of all the things you need to do, and break it down into really small tasks – and don’t forget to include self-care tasks, such as your workout and taking a shower.
Then, when you’re doing each thing, concentrate on each thing fully (even when you’re taking your shower – since concentrating on the feel of water and soap on your skin counts as practicing mindfulness!) By deeply focusing on the task you’re doing, rather than trying to keep everything in mind, you’re likely to be an awful lot more productive.
As you start work on each item on your list, it is a good idea to put your phone away but if you’re using it to help manage your Pomodoro intervals then make sure you either silence all your notifications, put it in airplane mode or use the digital balance settings to restrict the apps that you find most distracting.
If you’re prone to having thoughts that enter your head that you need to remember for later, keep a notebook and pen handy or send yourself a quick email. By recording those thoughts, you won’t need to have to keep coming back to it because you’ll have reminded yourself already – and since that is one less thing to think about, you’ll be able to concentrate better.
Building good habits
Aristotle said that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – so getting into good habits now will help you to achieve more during your studies, get higher grades and ultimately, get you into a much better job when you graduate.
Turning off, or silencing notifications on your phone when you need to focus will mean you’re less likely to be distracted. You can check your messages and updates when you’re having a break and you’ll be able to enjoy those few minutes that you spend checking your notifications when you’re on your break, since you will feel great about what you’ve achieved.
Taking breaks is essential for your long-term success. Working on something all day with no breaks won’t allow your best to shine through! If you’re busy, taking a break might not mean sitting and doing nothing. Taking a quick walk while calling a friend or family member is a great way of multitasking, taking care of your physical health and your social life while you get the mental break that you need from your studies.
Use apps sensibly. Being away from your phone or PC is near impossible, but there are loads of solutions that are definitely worth your time to help lower your stress levels and achieve more. Think about using Grammarly for improving your use of English in your essays, apps like Calm or Headspace to help you relax and your calendar app to keep you on track.
If you’re easily distracted by social media and the internet, there are apps for both your phone and your PC to restrict the use of certain apps or websites, which can help you to stay on target for your day.
Keep on top of your notes. Having organised notes that you wrote yourself will make revision time a lot easier, since you’ll have processed that information as you created the notes. If you missed a lecture or two, you can use lecture capture to catch up, and access the lecture materials through Moodle. If you do end up missing a few lectures, do your best to get caught up sooner rather than later since sessions often build on knowledge you get week on week.
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Don’t be afraid to ask for help
There is absolutely no shame in admitting that you’re overwhelmed and most of us will feel that at some point in our lives, even if we do our best to prepare for stressful times. It is much better to ask for support before you feel that you’re at breaking point, and there are a number of resources that are available from the university to help you:
- If you’re experiencing anxiety or any mental health needs, from SilverCloud, which offers Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to students, or you can contact the counselling service.
- If you have a medical condition or a specific learning difficulty like dyslexia, you can meet with a disability advisor to help you stay on top of your studies.
- Every student gets a personal tutor assigned to them within their academic school, and your personal tutor should be your first port of call if you’re feeling out of your depth. They’ll be able to help you with academic, pastoral and generic academic support and guidance, and if they can’t help you with a problem or issue you’re encountering, they will be able to signpost you to the support you need.
- If you’re in need of academic support, you can contact the academic librarians who will be able to help you if you can’t find what you’re looking for. They will help you to find research in subject specific databases and other resources, and can also help you with referencing.
- If you’re stuck because of issues to do with money, you can contact the Funding Advice team, who will be able to help you identify any funding that may be available to you.
If you have got to the point where everything feels completely overwhelming but you don’t want to (or feel that you can’t) reach out to the university for help, talk to family and friends where you can.
If you don’t feel there is anybody, talk to the Samaritans. You don’t have to be suicidal or at the point of giving up for you to be able to talk to them, and they will always provide a non-judgemental service.
You can call them on 116 123, email them firstname.lastname@example.org (you should expect a reply within 24 hours) or you can send them a letter. They also have a self-help app that may have the support you need, or if you’re not ready to actually speak to someone.
Starting university is a fantastic time for many, but it is definitely not without significant challenges. Change can be incredibly intimidating, even if it is what you have always wanted! Staying healthy by eating well, exercising and using stress management techniques will help tough times to feel a lot more manageable.
Planning your time will help you to feel more in control and mean that you won’t be overwhelmed because you won’t have left everything to the last minute and although planning your schedule can feel like a task in itself, it doesn’t have to. It can be as simple as using a calendar app on your phone to understand where you have gaps in your schedule, and fitting your work into those gaps.
We wish every student with us the very best luck during their time here and beyond, and that everyone has a great experience – but sometimes life gets difficult, for reasons internal or external to the university. Where we can help you achieve your goals, we will so if everything feels difficult, please contact your personal tutor in the first instance. If they can’t help specifically, they will put you in touch with the service you need.