*at the beginning of semester*

– There’s a final presentation due last week of classes, long way to go!

*2 weeks before the presentation is due*

– I have more important assignments due this week, will get to it later.

*1 day before it’s due*

– Does it really cover the whole course material? I’m short of time!..

We all are well acquainted with such a situation and know how stressful it can be to work non-stop counting down hours till the due submission time, drinking coffee and energy drinks, trying to just dump in as much information as possible – because well, the time to put in some quality work is gone. We get distracted easily as mind can’t concentrate always being interrupted with the fear of running out of time, and we get annoyed too.

Even though the following techniques to reduce the stress will seem trivial and well-known to most of you, think if you actually use them. Great if you do – maybe one or two. But in order to get fully concentrated and the most productive at such tough times, you need to implement all of those thing in a complex.

1) Study Location

The surroundings and the atmosphere of your studying session is key. You can’t make your brain indifferent to external influence in order to concentrate on a specific task. Moreover, every time you are distracted by talking to someone, listening to an announcement, doing something unrelated to an assignment, your brain switches the study mode to other ones: it loads and reloads the contexts of the situations you are involved in which makes it harder to get back the focus on what you were previously doing. This phenomenon is actually called Cognitive Switching Penalty explained by Josh Kaufman in his book “The Personal MBA” where he explains that multitasking is naturally impossible for a human and one can be fully concentrated on one task at a time.


This is why it’s important to isolate yourself in a space comfortable for studying – and studying only. It’s up to you where you find it to be – in Starbucks, in the school library where all the people around you are working too, thus motivating you with the same vibe, or at home. Make sure that, if it’s the latter, the study spot is not located near the bed. Working under time pressure most often means working late at night, and you may be too tempted to take a sweet break in a form of a nap and waste your precious time.

2) Task Breakdown

Whatever simple it sounds, breaking down a task into smaller pieces and looking at them from the urgency perspective is one of the most important tactics of how you can tackle its completion. However, under a time crunch everything seems urgent, so you need to analyze the importance of each small task component and prioritize them accordingly. This is a pre-work stage which is fairly essential because if you don’t have an organized order of your workflow, you may run into a situation where 1 hour before the due time you have a bunch of subtasks still unfinished, some of which require much research and effort to complete.

There is a great tool to consider when splitting the work into parts, and that is an Impact/Effort Matrix introduced in the book “Gamestorming” by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo. If you wanted to prioritize subtasks in a fair and meaningful way, you would look at the impact a particular task’s completion would have an the overall composition of the work or the grade you would get deducted if you omitted doing it, and at the effort it takes to complete that task. This is especially important under time pressure as you want to productively get more things done with less effort so you can save it for completing more tasks.

impact effort matrix

When assessing the importance of subtasks, you’re likely to look at:

  1. The core deliverables
  2. Assignment grading rubric & separate components weight
  3. How much of a total grade the assignment is worth
  4. How much important content each component contains (for future tests and exam)

Starting off, you would probably want to get the High Impact/High Effort part done first as your mind would still be fresh and ready to do hard work fast. After that, the High Impact/Low Effort would come in place, but at this point you would already have a sense of accomplishment having completed the hardest part, and the simpler one would seem easy to do for you. It’s great to look at the Low Impact components as well if you want your assignment to look complete, so follow the same order: High Effort first, Low Effort second.

3) Food

Yes, eat, have your energy sources nearby. Before you set to doing assignments, prepare some snacks, or better good nutritious food for the time you will be all crowded with work. Food is fuel to your body and brain. Prepare it in advance so when hunger strikes your stomach, you won’t be thinking of where to get something to eat, and moreover spending time on standing in front of the oven or running down to the nearest McDonald’s.


Now, it doesn’t simply mean that buying a pizza on the way to your study location will solve this issue. Scientists have proven that the contents of food affects your productivity and the time period from being full to feeling hungry again.

quote from harvard business review

In his article, Ron Friedman of Harvard Business Review, emphasizes the importance of having multiple snacks or small portions of a meal frequently throughout the day, which is also applicable to the time-constrained study situation. Regular snack intake maintains the level of glucose that is responsible for keeping our brains energetic. The best solution would be fruit and vegetables (unfortunately for those who isn’t into produce), unlike pasta, cereal or burgers that boost the glucose level up which is followed by a rapid turndown. So having a couple of bananas (the energy treasure) or apples on a table would not only keep you not hungry and grumpy but also contribute to your much needed productivity during such tough times.

4) Study Blocks with Breaks

Some people have a real problem with sitting down for an hour or two just studying, they need to take breaks because they feel like their brain no longer intakes and processes the information properly. This technique is a great suggestion to those who feel absolutely comfortable finishing off the work in one go, too.

Just like you need to sleep to have some rest from continuous work, your brain needs the same timeout session in a form of distraction. You may think that this goes in contradiction with the first tip I mentioned – being concentrated on one task, but it actually doesn’t. Be concentrated when you’re mind is set to work but direct your attention somewhere else when you feel like you’re tired in the current study block. Such breaks shouldn’t take long though (around 15 minutes) not to completely get distracted from the major task you’re completing but they should be related to something completely separate, like washing the dishes or helping your sister solve a math exercise. This way each time you start off a new study session your brain will feel refreshed and ready to go.

Don’t forget to take breaks – you earn them with your hard work!

Picture Attributions:
Cover picture by ClippartFest
Girl studying in the library picture by Chris Hren of #SchoolEdge Mobile
Girl dreaming of food picture by Fransesca Ferrante of Connecticut College
Friedman, Ron, “What You Eat Affects Your Productivity”, Harvard Business Review
Gray, Dave, “Impact Effort Matrix” video, YouTube
Kauffman, Josh, “The Personal MBA”

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