Hand buried under pile of papers

—Elsie T., California State University, Northridge

I usually know when I have too much on my plate: I curl up in a ball, pull a blanket over me, and spoon a quart of ice cream into my mouth. I bet, though, you’re asking more about how to avoid that outcome altogether by managing your tasks and your time more efficiently so you don’t get to the point that you’re overwhelmed.

I’m glad you asked because I have lots of experience overextending myself to the point that I buy ice cream in bulk. In all seriousness, I love being busy, but I’ve learned a few strategies for managing all the things I have to do in my life without going crazy. Here are just a few of the strategies I use:

Keep track of your tasks

Use a planner or a to-do list. Mark things off as you complete them. My list for today includes writing the answer to this question, and as soon as I finish, I’m going to strike through that item on the list. It sounds simple, but it feels good to make progress! And it makes me feel as though I can control some aspects of my life. Try it.

Learn to say “no”

This is so hard for people who love to be involved or please others. I have “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, and I agree to all kinds of activities, even when I’m not sure how I will get them all done. If you can’t say “No,” then say, “Let me think about it and get back to you.” Pausing before jumping in can often give you the time to think about how you’re going to manage your time and tasks.

Let some things go

You don’t have to do everything perfectly. You can tell a friend that you’ve changed your mind and you can no longer meet her for coffee. You can go to bed early instead of reading that last chapter. Often, I can feel instantly better about getting it all done when I make the decision to eliminate or put off an important but not urgent task (e.g., do I really need to do the laundry right now?).

Analyze your “why”

This strategy works for just about any habit we’re trying to kick. Ask yourself why you take on too much. Is it because of FOMO (see above)? Do you think you can’t ask for help? Are you afraid of disappointing others? Your answers will determine what your next steps will be to help you minimize your tendency to do too much or to mismanage the time you have.

You know your body best: If you’re feeling anxious all the time and are having sleeping, eating, or other health issues because you’re just too busy or overwhelmed, then you have definitely taken on too much. That’s when you’ll need to employ at least one of the strategies above. If those strategies aren’t working for you, consider talking to a mental health professional in your community or on your campus.