Here are my top tips for surviving the last sprint of the semester.
1. Take stock and schedule. When I get totally overwhelmed, I always make a giant to-do list. I prioritize it by A, B, and C. A items are those that have to get done right away. B items are those that have to get done pretty quickly, but could wait a bit. C items are those that can wait longer.
I don't leave my office until A items are complete, even if it means a late night by taking it home and finishing them in my home office. This releases the pressure of the near term and allows me to focus for the next few days on B items. I finish those within 48 hours. I then work on C items.
Note: I don't add more stuff to the list no matter what comes up until the list is done. If new things emerge, I start a new list, but commit to finishing the first list. The list making provides a way to manage your workload and definitely improves productivity. You don't get stuck with that feeling of impossibility that slows you down.
2. Sleep. Like most of you out there, I always try to get 6-8 hours of sleep a day. Of course, that doesn't always happen due to scheduling issues. But I always am more productive if I have a good night's sleep. For students reading this, I know you like to be night owls. But ask yourself, "How productive are my late night hours? " If they are very productive, keep it going. But if you end up spinning your wheels or spending too much time online or hanging out, it might be worth rethinking your sleep schedule.
I have a productivity trick I've used for years. If there is a nagging issue or writing project that is bugging me, I go to bed with it in the back of my mind knowing that I'll wake up with a solution in the morning. I don't obsess on it so I have trouble sleeping, but I just know that it's back there in my brain to solve overnight. When I wake up in the morning, I'll find that I have a writing project organized or that I've found a solution to a vexing issue. If it's a writing project that was bugging me, I go immediately to the computer and write for a half hour or so until I have the work down in words.
3. Exercise. I am a firm believer in exercise to clear the brain. Throughout my adulthood I've gone through periods where I exercised regularly and periods when I did not. My most productive times were when I was getting some form of exercise. I don't think the intensity matters. A brisk walk can get the blood flowing and clean out the brain. However, I find that more intense workouts (I am currently doing crossfit) give me more energy and thus more productivity.
Regardless of what you do, exercise helps to keep you on track and also helps with your sleep and diet.
4. Diet. I am a big time stress eater. Some years, I pack on about 10 pounds in tough semesters and then spend the breaks losing them. With time, I've become much more aware of this pattern and try to manage stress eating by choosing healthy food (instead of the candy I normally would devour) or by drinking tea or water.
While universities do have lots of healthy food options, they also have lots of bad ones--and it's the bad ones that are most convenient. I try to think before I buy and make smarter choices than I did in the past.
5. Mindful and mindless relaxation. This time of year it is hard to take breaks to relax. But, it's important to carve out time to hang out with friends, watch a movie, read a book, or enjoy a hobby. You'll probably have less time for this than other times of the year, but schedule it into your week.
We all have a guilty pleasure. Indulge it once in a while. Don't go crazy and spend the weekend binge watching Breaking Bad, but don't be afraid to take an hour or two away from your to do list. Just be mindful of your relaxation choices. For example, it wouldn't be wise to relax for an hour or two enjoying a visit from Colonel Sanders, Jesse Pinkman, or Jack Daniels. But it might be nice to read a book, play a game with friends, watch an inspiring movie, or knit a scarf. The choices you make in your free time should support your life in positive ways.