Project Management: 12 Actionable Steps When You’re Behind at School

Lately I’ve been hanging out on r/College and r/ApplyingToCollege to get a sense of what students are struggling with the most. Many students write that once they get behind on work, they feel anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed. They feel there is so much work that they will never recover.

Today I’m proposing 12 steps for getting back on track.

1) Start with a Tip from DBT Therapy: Evaluate Your Current Stress Level with a Number

DBT stands for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and is a branch of the more well-known CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). DBT is all about modifying behavior.

Many DBT therapists recommend that you learn to label your distress with a number using a scale from 0 to 100. Zero means you feel great – no stress whatsoever (I’m not sure I know what zero feels like). 100 means you are experiencing extreme distress. The definition of “extreme distress” is personal, and you can define what this means to you. For some people, extreme distress looks like panic attacks, self harm, or other psychiatric emergencies.

As always, if your distress has reached the point of suicidal ideation or self harm, there is always help available. In a psychiatric emergency, you can call your local emergency number (in the USA, call 911) or go to your local emergency room. Once you are stable in the short term, make sure to see a primary care doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist for help feeling better.

Take a moment to choose your number. You can do this in your head, say it out loud, or write it down.

If your number is so high that you feel at risk for self harm, this is a good time to call your local emergency number or go to the emergency room.

DBT doesn’t teach you to explain the reason for your number (and many people have potent biochemical triggers) but if you feel like a certain stressor is cranking up your distress, it’s not a bad idea to name it.

I’ll use myself as an example.

Right now, my distress is at a 54. My distress is moderate. I had some medical chaos last week, so I don’t feel great, but I also don’t feel like I’m having a crisis. I’m pretty stressed and could benefit from some self-care.

Skeptical? I was too.

The point of this exercise is to help people identify when they are highly distressed, so they can adjust their day and feel better. If your distress is very high, it is important to deal with that distress first before working on school or work projects.

2) If Distress is High: Use Distress Tolerance Skills (If Distress is Low, Skip to Step 3)

If your number is high (for example, above 70 or so), this is a good time to try distress tolerance techniques. The idea is that we need to calm down before we can problem-solve or take effective action.For high distress, you might like to try a DBT technique that takes advantage of the mammalian diving instinct. Apparently, when mammals dive into cold water, our heart rates and nervous systems calm down. To imitate this effect, you can try putting an ice pack on your forehead, or you can make a big bowl of ice water (with actual ice cubes) and dip your forehead in it. It’s shocking and unpleasant, but it works to change the biological reactions associated with panic, distress, or overwhelm pretty quickly.DBT also recommends mindfulness activities and other self care behaviors. I’ve included these in the list below, as well as other techniques I have learned from therapists.I have also included pro-social behaviors like calling friends because people are biologically wired to need human contact.

Other Tips for Acute Distress

  • Try a mindfulness exercise with a rock, crystal, worry stone, or other interesting object. Label the colors, textures, weight, and temperature. See if you can let go of any other thoughts and just focus on the object.
  • Use a coloring book, and focus on the colors, patterns, and feeling of the pen in your hand. If you don’t have one, you can also use a pen or pencil on a sheet of plain paper.
  • Use your senses and label what you see, hear, feel, smell, or even taste (if you happen to be eating or drinking). It is useful to speak out loud.
  • Name the year, your current location, and objects you see in the room. Again, it is useful to do this out loud. This technique is particularly useful if you are a trauma survivor having a flashback or other intrusive symptoms. It can help your brain better distinguish between the past and present.
  • Call a friend or someone else you trust
  • Call your therapist
  • Make a list of things you feel proud of
  • Make a list of nice things people said to you today
  • Make a list of things that went well. Even if your life is quite miserable, see if you can find one thing. Maybe it’s raining but you didn’t have to commute. Maybe you had to commute but you got home safely. Etc.
  • Put an ice pack on your neck or forehead (see the mammalian diving instinct description above, if you missed it)
  • Check the last time you ate (if you have skipped a meal, eat now)
  • If you are sleep deprived, take a nap
  • If you have been studying for hours, take a break
  • If you are healthy enough to do so, take a walk around the block

Do things on this list or engage in activities that normally make you feel better. Check your distress level again. I try to get mine below about 50, but you can choose your own cut-off.

This scale is a bit arbitrary, and I struggled with it for that reason, but try to focus on the main idea: if you are panicked or stressed out of your mind, you should take action to meet your emotional and physical needs BEFORE attempting to learn a new project management skill.

3) Project Management: Make a List of Projects and Tasks

Once your distress is more moderate (say, 50 or below), it’s time for project management.

Start by writing down a list of all the things that you are stressed about that are not done yet. It is likely that this stage will be very stressful. If your anxiety starts getting out of control while you are making your list, take a break and do more distress tolerance from step 2.

If you often find your work is associated with panic or anxiety, and if you are not already getting professional help, it is a good idea to find a therapist or to speak with your doctor about mental health care options.

The big lesson from this step: you need a list of your commitments in order to be able to manage them. Lists in your head do not count. As productivity expert David Allen writes, our brains aren’t ideal for memorizing. Use paper, an app, or a computer to keep track of tasks, and save your brain for creative problem solving.

4) Prioritize

If a project is worth a lot of points at school, that has a higher priority than a project worth less points. If you have a huge assignment due in 2 days, this is usually greater importance than whatever is due in 4 weeks. If something is health related, this also goes in the high priority list.

5) Can You Remove Any Commitments?

Are any of your commitments things you’d kind of like to do, but don’t really matter that much? Remove them. You have the rest of your life for things you’d kind-of-sort-of like to do. These tasks have no place when you are in crisis management mode.

Are any of your commitments important, but flexible? See if you can get rid of these too.

I had a student who was taking a heavy course load to graduate early. She had experienced several health emergencies, including invasive surgeries, and it wasn’t a good time to do extra work. She was a high achiever and normally did more than necessary.Because dropping a course would not affect her financial aid, I suggested that she might consider taking a normal course load. I told her that it might be better to take a normal number of classes and to do well in them. That extra class was important to her because she wanted to graduate early, but not crucial. If she dropped that class, she could still get her degree, keep her financial aid, and graduate on time. It was hard for her to accept that she might need to temporarily reduce her activities to accommodate her health emergencies. I obviously can’t comment on the origin of this specific student’s choices. In general, though, it’s worth thinking about the ways that gender socialization might be affecting your work habits. Many of us are socialized to behave in ways that don’t serve us, but it can be difficult to identify these patterns because they are so ingrained in everyday social contexts.

For example, many people have been socialized with the idea that nothing they do is ever enough, and that their role is to care for others. Other people have been socialized with ideas of toxic masculinity and have experienced pressure to be tough at all costs. These social pressures are not healthy or feasible. Push back.

6) Identify Specific Measurable Goals

I’ve written about projects vs. tasks before in my article on How to Use a Planner. To successfully complete a project, break the project into small tasks. If the tasks make you panic, they need to be smaller.

“Get an A” is a poor way to phrase a goal. How will you do it? What behaviors will you adopt? When will you work? A vague task triggers procrastination and anxiety.

“Practice calculus equations from Chapter 2 for 30 minutes every Friday in the library after I eat lunch” is a much better goal. It is specific. It is time-bound. It is measurable – you either went to the library and spent 30 minutes working on calculus equations, or you didn’t. Importantly, it fits nicely in your planner.

7) By the way, get a planner

For the love of God, just do it. Don’t try to memorize your commitments.

8) Use Your Planner

Those specific, measurable goals from step 6? Write them in your planner. Then check your planner daily or multiple times daily.

Chop up your tasks into little tasks from start to finish (see step 6) and then put those tasks in your calendar. Use bribes to encourage yourself (see steps 9 and 10).If you’re struggling with this, you can find a more detailed description of how to use a planner here.

9) Bribe Yourself

Many of us believe that only children should be rewarded for good behavior. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) says differently.

If we engage in difficult, values-based behavior (calculus practice problems, filing taxes, or any other unpleasant adulting task), DBT says we should reward ourselves. The reward should fit the difficulty and unpleasantness of the task.

If you did your taxes, maybe you might like to watch a movie on Netflix with your favorite popcorn. You probably didn’t quite earn a trip to Europe, though. If you finished your PhD, graduated from medical school, recovered from major surgery, or did something else that had a big significance to you, a bigger reward is appropriate.

10) Ideas for Baby Bribes

It’s not about bribing a baby. It’s about baby-sized bribes to get yourself to do the tasks you don’t really feel like doing.

Pre-pandemic, going to your local coffee shop, ordering your favorite coffee (especially if it’s fancy and has foam) and hanging out for a few hours was a great option. For more ideas for mini rewards, try the stress tips from step 2 or check out my article on How to Relax.

11) Ask for Help

Don’t forget that other people want to support you. You can ask people who care about you to help when there is too much to manage. For example, if you are a parent, you could ask a friend to watch your child if you need a night off for your mental health.You can also call a friend just to talk. Calling a friend for emotional support is a great way to manage stress, but many of us feel afraid to ask. People want to feel good and helping makes them feel good. You don’t have to do everything yourself.

Medical help for anxiety, depression, focus problems, chronic pain, or other conditions is also useful. If you feel sick all the time, or if you live with chronic symptoms, it is difficult to function. If you are already seeking care but functioning poorly, it might be time to get in touch with your doctor for changes in your treatment, or it might be useful to get a second medical opinion.

12) Give yourself credit

Learning to be proud of yourself might sound like pop psychology. However, practicing certain thoughts can affect how your brain is wired due to a concept called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity refers to a phenomenon where human brains can adapt to new experiences over time through a process of neural “pruning.” For example, if you are in the habit of thinking you are never enough, every time you have that thought, a certain pattern of neurons, blood flow, and electrical activity in your brain lights up, and strengthens that response. The feeling that you are not enough would become more ingrained over time, because your brain is essentially practicing that idea, the same way you might practice piano or another skill. If you do not practice a thought or skill, the brain deems that information unimportant, and will “prune” away relevant neurons.

Because of neuroplasticity, learning positive self-talk can help create healthier brain patterns that increase mood and help you feel more confident. This technique is even used by CBT therapists, so if you want some extra support in this skill, try reaching out to a mental health care professional.

Let’s practice.

If you achieved something today, even if it was small (especially if it was small!), try making up a sentence about your achievement. You can also make up a paragraph. Writing things down can also assist in rewiring the brain, so try this exercise in a journal for an extra boost in effectiveness.

Here are some examples of positive self-talk you can use to improve stress.

Let’s say you are stressed about school or work, and you have no idea how to get back on track. Here are some paragraphs and simple phrases that you might use to offer yourself positive reinforcement.

“Even though I am completely overwhelmed with work, I took a healthy step today by reading a blog post about project management. It’s a small step, but I was able to see a plan written by someone who has also experienced extreme stress in college and graduate school. Maybe I can try some of the tips, or even reach out to my university health care service for more support.”

“I am proud of myself for trying coloring books to see if it will help my stress and make my life feel more manageable.”

“I am proud of myself for learning about dividing projects into smaller tasks.”

“I am proud of myself for making a list of my commitments.”

“I’m proud of myself for getting started on my school project. Even though it was only five minutes, getting started is sometimes the hardest part. I’m doing a good job learning how to avoid procrastination. It was a small step, but if I take lots of small steps, I will be able to complete my work on time. The work will most likely be higher quality than if I started last minute.”

How often should I practice positive self-talk?

Your brain learns by repetition. Therefore, you might experience limited success if you only try this once.

Practicing these distress tolerance and project management skills frequently will directly affect your brain’s wiring and assist in relearning. Remember, if you don’t practice a skill, your brain views that skill as irrelevant to your survival and prunes it away.

I recommend practicing this once a day to start. As it begins to feel more comfortable, practice multiple times per day.

This sounds like a lot, but all I’m proposing is that you practice self-care daily and chip away at large projects gradually. If you can choose between small amounts of work, 4-5 days a week, over a period of weeks, this is always better than pulling all-nighters, writing a final essay in 24 hours, or failing classes because you forgot to get stuff done.

Long term success in school and your career is about budgeting your physical and mental energy, learning how to rebuild your physical and emotional stamina, and learning skills to manage projects.

Take tiny steps.