3 Ways to Fight Overwhelm during Your MBA

(image: Melodie)

by: Grayson Leverenz

I vividly remember an MBA orientation speech when the Dean said, “There will come a time in October when you will feel like you’re going to die, but you’re not going to die. You’re going to be fine, and you’ll come out on the other side stronger and smarter than you were before.”

I remember thinking at the time, there’s no way school can be harder to manage than working. That thought makes me giggle now. Between classes, group meetings, the job search, extracurricular activities, family life, social life and personal time, there are definitely not enough hours in the day to do everything we type A MBAs hope to accomplish. There are, however, ways to manage overwhelm that can come along with the need to always be doing more. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, here are three ways to fight it:

1. Pull things out of the air and put them into buckets.

Overwhelm surfaces when you have too many things running around in your brain. When your brain won’t shut off, it causes anxiety, and anxiety leads to overwhelm.

The first step in fighting overwhelm is taking control. Identify categories for everything running around in your head, and document them as buckets. I’m a big fan of doing this in PowerPoint because you can use different shapes and colors.    

Your buckets can be general (e.g. classes, job search) or specific (e.g. Stats class, Marketing class, Tier 1 internship companies, Tier 2 internship companies). I recommend making them as specific as possible because after you pull your buckets out of the air and put them down on paper, you’re going to map out everything you need to accomplish in each one on your to do list.

2. Use active verbs on your to do list.

David Allen, author and productivity guru, taught me the value of using active verbs on my to do list (or “trusted system” as Allen calls it) in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Allen presents the simple logic that a note becomes an achievable task much quicker when you start it with an action verb.

Imagine that you have 20 minutes between class and a group meeting. You pull out your to do list and see “Follow up with Carol RE: scheduling informational interview.” The nonspecific “follow up” means you have to think. Do I want to email Carol? Should I call her? Maybe I should send her a message through LinkedIn…

Before you know it, your 20-min break could be cut in half, and you don’t have time to complete the task. If you thought through your approach at the time you scheduled the task, you would see a specific action like “Email Carol RE: scheduling informational interview.” You can bust that out and move on to the next thing.  

3. Practice Inbox Zero.

You’ve captured your categories and created an effective to do list, but the emails keep pouring in faster than you can check off your action items. It never ends!

A third key that works well for me is Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero. Mann recommends that you never open an email (or another incoming piece of information like taking a phone call) unless you’re prepared to deal with it at that moment. You can "process" the new information in one of two ways.

If you can accomplish the task in less than two minutes, do it immediately. For example, if a classmate emails asking for your notes from class that day, send them right away rather than powering through to the next email. If the task can’t be accomplished in under 2 minutes, add it to your to do list in action form, and come back to it when you have time scheduled for accomplishing tasks. 

This takes practice. A lot of people live in their inboxes, using them as to do lists. Inbox zero works better for two reasons. First, transferring the task to a master list helps implant it in your brain. Second, avoiding clutter leads to a much better frame of mind.

There you have it: categorize your to dos; create an effective master list; and challenge yourself to keep a clean inbox. Three steps that will help fight overwhelm during your MBA and beyond.   

What other tactics do you use for fighting overwhelm? Please let me know in the comments. Thanks!

Author: Grayson Leverenz

Grayson Leverenz founded MBA in the USA® to help international students build networks, find jobs, and have fun in the USA. Hundreds of global professionals have benefited from Grayson’s intercultural workshops, and she has worked with people from Brazil, China, India, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, and the USA to build effective virtual teams and craft brilliant careers.

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  1. Thanks for the great post. I think that anyone who has a stressful schedule can make the best of these tips. Personally, as a full time employee and part time student, I certainly know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. Thanks again!

  2. Polina, You’re very welcome; I’m happy to help. Best of luck with your job and school! Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

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