How to study successfully: overcoming overwhelm

By Kat Knights writer, tutor and mentor at Professional Academy

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the amount of demands being placed on you from work that your ability to study suffers? Does overwhelm lead you to feel like you don’t know which task to tackle first because your mind can’t focus on any one thing without being distracted by the others? In this blog I’ll explain what causes us to feel overwhelmed and what you can do to reduce your stress levels to enable you to study successfully.

According to the Collins dictionary feeling overwhelmed is when something ‘affects you very strongly, and you do not know how to deal with it’.

Does that sound familiar to you?

Do you ever feel like you are drowning in work? Maybe you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of emails at this very moment.

The modern culture of constant checking

The demarcation lines between home and work have become blurred. Technology has contributed to this blurring of the lines.

Where once we left the office and left our work there too, we now carry phones in our pockets that link us inextricably to our desk life. Emails are synced, customers call us, social media puts our personal lives on view to our work colleagues.

This constant connection and the way apps are designed to trigger us to engage and check them constantly (notifications and badges being the main culprits) means that we live in constant fear of missing out (FOMO) and that something better is happening elsewhere without us.

Social media and the internet has no imposed regularity or structure. There is no bottom or end to them and they demand constant levels of engagement. Contrast this with a book, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. The end of the story being the clear signal to the reader to put the book down and do something else. With social media and the internet these signals are missing. It means you have to be impossibly disciplined to avoid constantly checking your screen.

How constantly checking impacts your ability to study and makes you feel overwhelmed

If you’re someone trying to study and master something new then you need to have a system in place to enable you to focus. Study won’t just happen. Mastery won’t just happen. You need to work at it. If you don’t then the work will pile up and, you guessed it, overwhelm will kick in.

It might feel easier to respond to an email or notification on your phone, but that’s only going to help in the short term. To reduce your underlying overwhelm and stress levels you need to act and behave in a way that will help you in the long term.

How to protect your study time and prevent overwhelm

In order to protect your study time you need to work smarter with your work time. Prevention is always better than cure. In his book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’, Norman Vincent Peale said, ‘plan your work, work your plan’.

Here are three things that will help you do just that:

1. Eliminate and chunk – remove the things on your task list you can’t do or be in control of. If there are items that are no longer relevant, remove them. If they can’t be removed consider whether they can be delegated to someone else instead. Then, with the tasks that reman, break them down into the smallest possible chunks. This avoids procrastination and helps you see that all tasks are easier to mentally digest when they are divided up into their smallest possible parts.

2. No – say ‘no’ to people more often. Every time you do so it’s a vote for yourself and a vote for your commitment to your study. Make sure you tell whoever you’re saying ‘no’ to the reason why your response is negative rather than positive. Most people will be comfortable with this. You might need to practice saying ‘no’ to begin with but in time you will become more confident with declining requests for your time and attention.

3. Email – get out of your inbox. Unless you work in a customer service team then email is not your job. Open your email client once or twice a day and work through what you can in 30 minutes. Then close it. Include in your email signature that this is how you work. You’ll be surprised how you can reduce email traffic with this tactic. This also means you should get into the habit of sending fewer emails too. For example, if you have a complex idea to discuss with someone set up a call rather than instigating a long email exchange.

What to do if you are feeling overwhelmed right now

If you are reading this blog and you are feeling overwhelmed there are some steps you can take to gain control of the situation right now.

Emergency action steps:

1. Stop – come to a halt and go for a 10 minute walk. Get away from your environment and into nature. By doing so you will come back feeling energised and have greater clarity of mind

2. Do one thing – do one thing you can control and complete in five or ten minutes. This will prove to yourself that you do have self-discipline and by completing something you will raise your motivation level too.

3. Talk to someone – the proverbial saying 'a problem shared is a problem halved' is true. When something feels difficult talk to someone about it.

If you only do one thing start your day with a morning routine

Investing in a morning routine is one of the most powerful ways to take ownership of your day and improve your overall wellbeing. It’s also how many successful people start their day; think Barack Obama. Preparing yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually each day through a structured morning routine will help you set the rhythm for the rest of your day and if you bolt your study time habit onto your morning routine then you’ll master your day before lunchtime. It’s a powerful combination that will kick overwhelm to the kerb and enable you to continue on your path to study success.