Tackling burnout at university: A savvy survival guide to get you through
Future you will be thankful you followed these steps
Balancing uni and your personal life can be overwhelming and extremely stressful, and this is coming from a girl who managed to hand in too many essays the day they were due while still being violently hungover/drunk from that same night. The uni experience is often a juggling act: Going out, somehow going to all your lectures and being able to hand in work ON TIME, eating regularly, seeing friends, participating in clubs or sports, working out, and also finding time to decompress and check in with yourself. Does this sound realistic to you? These are the bits and pieces of wisdom I’ve collected over my time at uni to deal with burnout, and the strategies I’ve put in place to help me stay on top of my work, social life and mental health.
Time management and prioritisation
A heavy workload can quickly lead to burnout. The first step in overcoming burnout is to plan your time carefully to prioritise the most important tasks. Knowing when your exams and assignments are due is a great starting point, then schedule office hours if you require more support.
Try dividing the work into smaller, more manageable chunks. One useful strategy is to split your daily and weekly responsibilities into four sections:
- DO FIRST – tasks that require quick attention, and probably the most important
- Schedule – big tasks that aren’t time-sensitive. These usually require longer planning periods
- Important but not urgent – little things that seem significant, but aren’t particularly immediate. Usually in the form of future tasks or distractions. Prioritise the present, let future you deal with the rest
- Not urgent or important – the majority of these tasks are a waste of time. Ditch anything you don’t need to do to open up your schedule. At uni, time is precious so get your priorities straight. Reading that unnecessary extra article will not make you an academic weapon overnight.
Make sure to include time for rest. If you have trouble staying focused for extended amounts of time, try the 20 minute work session followed by a five to 10 minute break, and repeat this for two hours. Over time, you can adjust the work and break periods to suit your needs.
Creating a healthy work life balance
It sounds straightforward, but it’s one of the most powerful tools to avoid burnout. Setting boundaries for studying will help you avoid feeling exhausted as you can recognise when it’s time to stop and relax without feeling guilty. Plus, creating a cute schedule is a great way to glamorise your study timeframe.
If my results aren’t what I anticipated, I’ve learnt to reflect on the systems I put in place that lead to these outcomes. I make consistent, small changes to help shape a more balanced life. The key is to focus on your daily habits and routine, rather than the big task ahead. If we aspire to be 1 per cent better each day, we will have improved 37 per cent in a year.
Define specific working hours and stick to them, whether they are in the mornings, afternoons, or during your spare moments, and choose a spot where you can work productively (coffee shops, study rooms, your house). When you’re in this area, you’re at work – when you’re not, you’re off the clock.
Reduce the time you spend studying outside of your “working hours”. Meaning no emails or discussions regarding uni work. Your lecturers do it, so you should too. This helps to lower your stress levels and make the most of your leisure time. As David Guetta once said: Work-hard, play-hard.
Include personal rest time – this doesn’t mean resting while still worrying about what needs to be done, completely relax. Find out what helps you unwind, whether it’s reading, walking, journaling, talking to close friends and family, or watching TV. Remember to take time off when necessary; if you can’t do work that day, don’t do it! And never feel bad about not being able to accomplish every task. You’re only human, and you won’t be able to do everything. Pay attention to what your mind and body need.
Self care rituals
If there is anything you take from this, let it be this section. Creating self-care practises that address your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing is crucial in maintaining balance. This is different for everyone, but what I try to do is make sure I get some form of exercise into my daily routine, even if that’s just walking.
Regular exercise has been shown to improve memory, increase focus, and sharpen problem-solving skills, yet its benefits are frequently underrated. Set aside regular time to check in on yourself, including relaxing and enjoyable activities you enjoy. Whether this includes a good book, going on coffee runs, trying new places to eat. My personal fave is Chance & Counters, meditating or spending time with friends who uplift you, not drain you. In the long run, these habits work as anchors for lowering stress and recharging your energy.
When you find yourself feeling drained and trapped within your own thoughts, seeking clarity or relief can be as simple as reaching out for help. Whether it’s confiding in a trusted friend or a close family member, or tapping into the mental health and well-being services offered by UoB or your academic program, like the resources available here.
It’s important to understand that opening up about your feelings doesn’t make you a burden. In reality, it can have a major impact on your mental health, bringing emotional comfort and assisting in reducing the stress that might cause burnout.
Setting goals and positive affirmations
We all have moments when we feel a little lost and unmotivated with work, and we usually forget why we’re doing it. It’s crucial to practise self-reflection during these moments to re-evaluate why we started in the first place. We need to rethink our long term goals and aspirations. Having a clear understanding of your short and long term goals will keep you motivated, make tasks appear less overwhelming, and prevent a burnout. Using positive affirmations will keep you motivated and on track with your goals, for example “I am fully capable of overcoming challenges and achieving my academic goals.”
Remember that every challenge at uni is only temporary, and even during the toughest times you’re always doing better than you realise. Give yourself credit for how far you’ve come.