Overwhelmed by College?

5 min read

Disorganized and overwhelmed by college or the start of the semester? The Shrink Space provider, Dr. Terri Bacow shares more about techniques that can help.

In October the air begins to cool – and reality is setting in for many college students. September was likely a flux of excitement and transitions, involving moving into new housing, meeting new roommates, adding and dropping classes. Now, pumpkin spice latte season is upon us (with or without whipped cream) and you are probably starting to feel just a little bit overwhelmed by college.  Perhaps a paper is looming or an assignment is overdue, or professors’ demands are increasing, and you have actual work to do!

Staying organized is a challenge for the most well-intentioned college or graduate student, and it becomes trickier when one is living completely independently, sometimes for the first time (hellooo Freshmen!)  In high school, there was a magic ingredient embedded in each day that helped keep you on your toes.  This is known as structure.  By this, I do not mean the scaffolding holding a building together, but rather, a set schedule created by school administrators that you had no choice but to follow. In contrast, in college, students are expected to both make their own schedules AND figure out what to do with unstructured free time.  With so many hours between classes, it can be difficult to know how to spend these hours.  Should you sleep, eat, study, socialize?  If so, for how long?

There is an engine in the brain (specifically, the frontal lobes) that drives these decisions that psychologists refer to as executive functioning.  Executive functioning involves the following four components: planning, organizing, time-management and goal setting.  These four elements fall under the umbrella of self-regulation – the ability to hold it all together! Executive functioning is some degree innate, but it can also be learned, and it is something that most certainly develops over time, with age.

People, for various reasons, can have executive functioning (EF) deficits. Their EF skills are underdeveloped or not up to par.  Perhaps this is a muscle that has not yet been used. For students with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and other learning differences, executive functioning is a major area of concern and accounts for a considerable degree of academic challenge and stress. This can be especially problematic during the college years as the demands of college do heavily require the use of executive functioning.

As a therapist, I have always had to have strong EF skills, likely developed from attending a tough elementary and high school with sky high expectations.  When I was in college, I taught study skills workshops to other students. I currently juggle a family, a psychology private practice, and being the training director of a group practice. It is not easy, and there are certainly moments where I think my brain might go into overdrive. In those moments, I try to remain calm, and get myself organized!

I work at the Hallowell Center, an epicenter for the treatment of ADHD and related disorders, and this work has enabled me to become more familiar with various techniques that improve focus and concentration.  One thing I have learned is that no two brains are alike. We all have different types of nervous systems. As the psychologist William Dodson has discovered, many of us have an importance-based nervous system.  We are motivated by things like obligations, deadlines, timelines. The rest of us have an interest-based nervous system.  The things that motivate are not necessarily important per se, yet are compelling enough to override inertia. What are the factors that can compel someone with slightly weaker EF skills to jump into action?  There are five factors, according to Dodson, that are captured by the acronym INCUP: interest, novelty, challenge, urgency and passion.  For some of us, the only way we can get a paper done is the night before it is due, even if this is super stressful, because the deadline needs to be urgent enough to be staring at us in the face.  Task initiation can be difficult, unless the task is well, fascinating (said the client of mine who decided to re-arrange a Lady Gaga tune instead of completing a writing assignment for work).

If this describes you, do not fear. OST (organizational skills training, developed by the psychologist Richard Gallagher) and CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) for organization and distraction developed by Mary Solanto can be your friend!  Below, I summarize some key tips for staying organized and strengthening your EF skills. 

Break It Down

  • Try an ice-breaker. Take the textbook out of the backpack, open it to the first page, read the first sentence.
  • Break each task down into parts. If you’re still having trouble starting, break it down into even smaller parts.
  • Schedule each task in your planner; estimate how long it will take; prioritize. If it’s not in your planner, it doesn’t exist.
  • Consider a bullet journal. A bullet journal is an organizational system in a notebook that keeps track of anything you would like to write down in an coherent way.
  • Plan a pleasurable little reward for completing the task. Tell yourself, “After I finish this, I can____.” Breaks are crucial for keeping up focus as long as they are not too lengthy.
  • Visualize completing the task. Imagine all the pleasurable feelings and results that will follow.
  • Visualize consequences of not completing the task. Imagine all the negative feelings and results that will follow.
  • Time yourself as you complete the task. Compare your actual time to your estimated time to hone your judgment of how long things take.

Getting Started is the Hardest Part

Ease your way into the task by starting with the easiest part.

  • If you’re still having trouble starting, you’re planning to do too much.
  • Never leave off a task at a difficult point; it will be harder to start again.

If you can’t decide what to do first, do the next priority item in your planner. To narrow it down further…

  • Do the thing that you are least likely to do.
  • Do the thing that’s most convenient at the moment.
  • Do the thing you would most enjoy doing right now.

Minimize distractions

  • Go where you don’t have interesting magazines, books around.
  • Don’t have TV, radio, people talking in earshot.
  • Close your door. Or consider a library or quiet coffee shop.
  • Use voice mail to intercept calls. Put that phone away!!

Get Organized

Have a plan in place

  • Use the F.A.T. system for decision making – File, Action, or Trash.
  • When filing or storing things, subtract before you add.
  • Partner with a friend. This can be known as body-doubling.

Maintain the zone. Don’t let the task get daunting again!

  • It’s easier to keep a rolling stone in motion than it is to move it for the first time.

What does this look like IRL (in real life?) A case example would be a student who is in his/her/their last year of school and is juggling a double major, a senior thesis, and job applications for after graduation as well as a paid part-time job — and understandably feels overwhelmed by college. I would encourage this person to take a pause and consider the entire week ahead.  I would recommend prioritizing what is most to least important, and scheduling blocks of time to complete tasks that are smaller components of the overall task (for example, a single job application, a single homework assignment, one thing at a time). The use of a planner would be crucial here and possibly some bullet journaling to get ideas down on paper.  In addition, if the student is having trouble getting started, it would be help to figure out what type of task would be easiest to begin with (the hardest/easiest/most interesting?)  Setting artificial deadlines (get half a paper done by Tuesday) would be very beneficial. And having an optimal workspace that promotes concentration and rewarding downtime is definitely in order!

In summary, even the most organized amongst us can feel overwhelmed by college from time to time. You are not alone – everyone goes through this.  Seek support.  Talk to a psychologist or an EF skills coach (yes, that is a thing!)  The Shrink Space is an excellent resource for finding a therapist or coach that is a good fit.  Do not hesitate to reach out and find someone to talk to.  Even a handful of sessions of OST or CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) can make a big difference.  In short, it is best to get that paper out of the way so you can go enjoy that pumpkin spice beverage (and hunt for the perfect costume, that of the Very Organized College Student).

For more tips to manage feeling less overwhelmed by college check out last month’s back to school post. Dr. Terri Bacow is a provider on The Shrink Space. To learn more about her or schedule an appointment, visit her profile here!

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