Are you ready to stop feeling overwhelmed by life, school, and work so that you can get motivated to pass your courses? Let’s talk about how to stop feeling overwhelmed and make real progress in your studies.
I did a little research on overwhelm and motivation in preparation for writing this post and found a lot of quick-tip advice. It’s good advice, great tips even, but nothing I found addressed the underlying cause. Specifically, how to deal with the swirling thoughts in our heads. Taking a nap will help me feel rested (if I can stop thinking and fall asleep), but I will wake up to the same thoughts swirling around inside.
The best tool to help manage and even eliminate overwhelm is a thought download. When you deal with the thoughts in your head in a way that allows you to take some action and move forward, you will feel motivated again. (also check out the #1 way to beat procrastination)
What is a thought download?
In a thought download, you want to transfer everything bouncing around your brain to a piece of paper. Include the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t worry about solving any of your problems. Try not to judge what comes out.
Just write it down.
If you don’t know where to start, begin with “I’m not motivated” and “I feel overwhelmed”. Then think about why you feel that way.
Initially, set a timer for 10 minutes and keep going until the timer goes off. If you’re already using the Pomodoro technique, it works great here as well. It will give you some structure that helps the process along. As you get better at this process, you can simply start writing and stop writing when you feel that you’re finished. It isn’t about a magic amount of time or a specific number of words written. It is about taking what is in your brain and downloading it to a piece of paper.
This piece of paper serves as a perspective.
It’s amazing how looking at and reading something feels different from just thinking about it. On the paper, you are able to see all of your thoughts and use that perspective to take the next step.
When a thought is in our brain it feels like a hard truth and that makes it really powerful. Seeing it on paper can give you a tiny bit of distance from the thought and help you evaluate it, question it, and decide what to do with it.
Don’t believe this can help? Check out research showing that journaling about exam fears impacts college student’s GPA. Getting these thoughts out of your head allows your mind to focus on the exam itself…and this goes for the rest of your life as well.
What do I write down?
If you have never tried a thought download, you may be stuck trying to get started. Here are some simple ideas to get you started. Pick one, and start writing:
- Make a list of everything you need to do at work.
- Make a list of everything you need to do at home.
- Make a list of everything you are worried about.
- Make a list of everything that you need to study.
- Pick a course and start writing about what you do and do not understand.
- Answer this question: Am I a good student or a bad student? (For the record, there is no such thing as a good or bad student but this question can help you figure out what may be keeping you from studying.)
What do I do with my thoughts?
Now you have some words on the page and hopefully, are starting to feel a little lighter. You may have already stopped feeling overwhelmed. The act of just getting it down on paper usually helps me immensely. To really get back to a feeling of calm, you need to take a little bit of action on what you wrote down.
Sort & Organize
Look at all of the things you wrote down that need to be done. Sort them out by priority, or urgency. What needs to be done today? What must be finished this week? What is not time-sensitive?
Then you want to organize these items. Hopefully, you have a system in place for remembering what needs to be done. If not, stay tuned because I’ll be posting about it soon! I use a to-do app that syncs with my computer and phone to keep track of things that need to get done. After a thought download, I will transfer these to-do items into my app so that I can forget about them today and trust my organization system to keep track of them for me. That small step allows me to take action on every item, even if the immediate action is just to get things into my system.
From your list of things that need to be done today, pick one thing to do next. It doesn’t matter what it is, and I might even suggest you pick the easiest one first. If you choose the item that can be done the quickest and easiest and do it, you are going to feel so good. You’ll see quick progress and the good feeling from it will propel you into the next item. Keep it up!
Decide what to keep and what to let go
After you sort and organize your to-dos you are likely going to be left with some thoughts. Examine your thoughts and sort them into positive thoughts and negative thoughts (or maybe think of thoughts that feel good and thoughts that don’t feel good). I find it is really helpful to use color here. If you have two highlighters, use one color to highlight all of the positive/feel-good thoughts and another color to highlight the negative/feel bad thoughts.
I have done this, and it is amazing. Every time I am feeling overwhelmed and do a thought download, what comes out are negative thoughts.
There may be a few positive thoughts sprinkled in, but the emphasis is always on the negative. Leads me to believe that overwhelm comes from a head full of negativity! Does anyone else notice this?
Look at where your thoughts are right now, and decide what you want to do with them. We’ve talked about managing your thoughts to stop sabotaging your studies and start making progress. Remember that your thoughts are optional.
I know they feel like truth, but they’re not.
I could say the truth is that grapes are delicious. You could say the truth is that grapes are gross. Truth is relative, and this is good news!
Really stop feeling overwhelmed
Let’s say that I’ve been steaming all day about how uncooperative my toddler has been…not that I’ve done that…since yesterday. 🙂 I do a thought download and reading over it to see all of these thoughts about her lack of cooperation. The thought feels true. I can point to specific examples of how uncooperative she has been.
But here is the beauty of this process. I read that thought with some perspective from the piece of paper. Then I remember that a toddler’s job to say no and see what happens. That is equally true, but this thought makes me less frustrated about the day. I choose to let go of the thought that my toddler is uncooperative and decide to focus on the thought that she’s doing her job, saying no to see what happens. The behavior from the day hasn’t changed, but how I feel about it just did a 180. With that change in thought, I have stopped feeling overwhelmed.
Is your mind blown yet?
Here’s another example of my fictional friend Joe. Joe is feeling really overwhelmed about school and does a thought download about his studies. He writes down how terrible he is at time management and that he isn’t making progress on his courses. He’s feeling pretty down about himself because he wants to do well in school.
Joe reads these thoughts on the paper and thinks about it for a while. He doesn’t want to feel this way. He also knows that he does a good job of keeping track of projects at work and always gets them done on time. Joe is sometimes good at time management. Realizing this, he knows that he could apply his approach to tracking work projects to his school work. Dang, Joe, that’s some fantastic thought management with a bonus action plan!
The key is to choose thoughts that do feel true to you. If you think that you’re terrible at time management and try to tell yourself that you’re awesome at time management, it isn’t going to work. You’ll feel that it isn’t true. The shift here is subtle. The original thought Joe had is that he was terrible at time management. He didn’t shift it to awesome. He changed it to be sometimes good at time management. That thought is true, and it also doesn’t discount the frustration of the current experience. But it does feel a whole lot better and WILL lead to productive action.
Are you ready to stop feeling overwhelmed? Get more tips on how to be successful in college.
Try It Yourself: 20-minute Challenge
- Choose a question from above to write about.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes.
- Start writing.
- When the timer goes off, sort through what you wrote.
- Identify the to-do items and transfer them to your to-do list.
- Examine the thoughts. Do they lean more positive, or more negative?
- Decide what thoughts you want to keep.
- Take action on one item on your to-do list and stop feeling overwhelmed.