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What to do when you have too much to do

Katiegrades, homework, productivity, time management

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

This blog post features practical advice about what to do when you have too much to do. The advice is useful for those occasional times – up to a few days in a row – when you are overwhelmed and have too much to do. 

If you are chronically overwhelmed, then I suggest starting with these 5 tips that will help you feel less overwhelmed with school in general. 

This post has no magic strategies or bogus hacks: just a dose of realistic advice for students with too much to do. 

If you’ve found this post, I’m assuming that you’ve already determined that you’re overwhelmed and don’t have enough time to manage what’s expected of you. 

But before you read any further, please go through the exercise that I teach here about how to determine exactly how much time you have available to do your things. Do not skip this step. If you do this work first, you might realize you have more pockets of time than you think you do, and you won’t even need the advice in this post. That’s the best-case scenario.

A word of caution: taking that first step is hard because it forces you to confront the reality of how you’re spending your time. Again, this is hard. But this step is necessary before moving on.

Once you’ve gone through that process (again, here’s the exact process), and once you have determined that you really are using your time the best you can, you’re not procrastinating, and you, in fact, just straight-up have too much to do, then the following two strategies are for you.

What to do when you have too much to do

When you have too much to do and not enough time to do it, you only have two choices:

  1. Don’t do some of the things on your list 
  2. Temporarily stop doing other things so you can complete the things on your list

I warned you: there are no hacks in this post. If you have more obligations and assignments that can fit your schedule over the next few days, you have to choose between not doing some of the things on your list, or temporarily not doing other things, so you can get to the items on your list.

Mathematically, you cannot do everything.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example of when you have too much to do over the course of TWO very busy days:

1. Make a list of the things you need to complete, and estimate how much time each will take you. Make your time estimations realistic, not hopeful.

AssignmentEstimated Time to Complete
Literature Essay3.5 hours
History research paper outline1 hour
2 math worksheets30 minutes each; 1 hr total
Spanish project45 minutes
Study for a bio test45 minutes on both days
Example work to complete in two days. The total adds ups to 7 hours.

2. Determine the timeframe to complete it all: two days. 

3. Map out your schedule to make time visible (do not skip this step).

Map out your actual schedule on a piece of paper (or use a digital calendar) to make your time VISIBLE.

If map out your daily schedule for our hypothetical two days (above), you see that you only have 2 1/2 hours a day to work on school things without sacrificing your sleep. And that’s without taking a single break.

4. Face reality: If you look at the above problem as a mathematical equation, it does not compute. You cannot do 7 hours of work in 5 hours. I’m going to repeat that so it’s clear what is NOT an option: you cannot do 7 hours of work in 5 hours.

5. Consider your two options: 1) don’t do some of the things on your list, or 2) temporarily stop doing other things so you can complete the things on your list.

6. Possible solutions:

  1. Don’t do one of your assignments (like your literature essay) and ask for an extension
  2. Don’t go to practice on Wednesday or Thursday (the better option)

You might not like any of the above solutions, but they’re the only two options you have unless you’re going to sacrifice your sleep, which I never, ever advise.

What NOT to do when you have too much to do

Where many students go wrong is they don’t take the time to do the math to figure out if their schedule is realistic. And because they skip this step, they charge forward, attempting to complete an unrealistic amount of things in an unrealistic amount of time. And then they end up in a bad place. Here’s a list of what not to do when you have too much to do:

  1. Deny the math, charge ahead and pretend like you can invent more time
  2. Sacrifice your sleep and pull an all-nighter to get your work done
  3. Freeze and not complete anything
  4. Do junk on your assignments and turn in bad work

Final notes

If you occasionally find yourself in a position where you have too much to do and not enough time to do it all, you’re normal. This is just what happens once in a while when you get multiple big assignments at the same time, after-school events inconveniently pile up, and other monkey wrenches get thrown into the mix. When you’re in one of these busy moments, just remember what your two options are: 1) don’t do something on your list or 2) temporarily stop doing other things so you can complete the things on your list. And then learn for next time. You’ll be okay.

Do you have a part-time job and you’re feeling overwhelmed with balancing work and school? These 15 tips for balancing school and a part-time job are just for you.

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