So Much To Do, So Little Time: Tips for Coping with an Overbooked Life

By Lindsey Wahlstrom, MPH ’14, in the Department of Epidemiology

To_Do_ListWhen I was thinking about whether or not to leap into graduate school, I attended Columbia’s Admitted Students Day. During one of the sessions, the staff “strongly suggested” that we not take on any commitments during the first semester core curriculum. As a person who always bites off more than she can chew (and who suffered from a bit of sticker shock when the tuition bill arrived), I did not heed their sage advice. By the time September rolled around, I was committed to a full-time MPH program, a part-time job, several private health coaching clients, co-editing a book, and serving as an advisor for a re-launched radio station in Mexico.

Though there are times when I would love to have less on my plate, in all honesty, I wouldn’t change a thing. An MPH is a professional degree and there is no better way to synthesize the classroom education than by applying it directly to a project. Similarly, everything I do outside of the classroom gives me a new perspective on the theories and case studies presented in class.

With that said, there are weeks when I feel utterly overwhelmed. At those times, there are a few strategies that help me get through:

Breathe. This may just be the Health Coach in me speaking, but there is very little that can be done when your brain doesn’t have oxygen. Stress is a part of life – and especially a part of grad school – but wasting whatever energy you do have worrying won’t do much to ease the stress. A run will help and so will checking things off of your “to do” list. But neither of those things is possible without enough oxygen. So just breathe.

Prioritize. At least once a week, I ask myself: “Why are you here?” When the light at the end of the midterm tunnel seems too faint, it’s helpful to remember why I decided to take on so much responsibility in the first place. Beyond school, remember what’s important in life. Every week I take time to get pancakes or watch “Team Umizoomie” with my niece. Being around her reminds me to slow down and take pleasure in the small things. I may not be able to take a whole day off of work, but I can take an hour to jump in puddles or play hide-and-seek.

Get organized. I am one hundred percent addicted to my planner. I do things old-school and use a paper planner because, to me, there is no better satisfaction in life than putting pen to paper and crossing something off of my to-do list. Other classmates use their Google calendar or phone. Whatever floats your boat; just make sure you know where you need to be, with whom, and what needs to get done before you get there. Also, stay on top of your readings and assignment dates. Do this and you will never have to panic about whether or not the TA got your assignment by the deadline. (I learned that the hard way.)

Don’t let “great” be the enemy of “good enough.” Deadlines in the professional world and in the academic world are hard and fast. Turning something in five minutes late so that it is “perfect” doesn’t cut it. You will still get a zero, or, worse yet, lose the grant. Sometimes, against every bone in my Type-A body, I have to turn something in that is definitely not perfect. Keep in mind, most people at work and at school would prefer you submit something “good enough” rather than miss a critical deadline.

Finally, take time to play. Whether at the park, in a bar, or at a bowling alley, take time every week to blow off steam and have fun. No one likes a ragged employee. Or a crabby grad student.

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