How do we all keep from feeling overwhelmed? And how can you stay focused on your academic work?

Experts including the success coaches at St. Edward’s University say the best strategy is to think small: Break big challenges into smaller steps, and then tackle one thing at a time. You’ve probably heard that advice before as it pertains to a school assignment. But you can use the same technique to handle most big projects at college — whether that’s a 10-page paper, a very challenging class, or the “project” of preparing for your future career.

The other way to feel less overwhelmed is to maintain a healthy perspective: The ride won’t always be smooth, and your success coach (or teachers and professors) can help you reframe an experience to keep moving forward. Read on to learn their top tips for staying calm and balanced amid life’s challenges.

Students at St. Edward's relax with yoga

1. Create structure for yourself.

Feeling overwhelmed by a paper or project? Your success coach will figure out how to structure the work to fit your style and schedule. For example, what are the blocks of time that are free, outside of work and other obligations? And if you work backward from the deadline, when should you start the project? College — especially now that all students are doing remote learning — is a very unstructured environment, but a conversation with a success coach can help create structure for getting that paper done.

2. Find motivation to power through a tough class.

You can use the same strategy to get through a class that’s particularly difficult: Focus on one week at a time, and break assignments into smaller steps. But if a class feels truly overwhelming, an honest conversation with your success coach can help you find purpose and stay motivated.

“I’ve had students who are struggling to get through their required math class,” says Director of Academic Success Mary Culkin. “I help them realize that their class is a chance to develop skills to manage other situations in life that feel frustrating or overwhelming. The first step is showing up — that’s true for a math class or a tough project at work. And in either situation you may have to focus on something that’s hard for you to think about. I help my students see that by sticking with it, they’re not just getting through their math class — they’re developing the mental toughness that will help them deal with those situations for the rest of their lives.”

3. Use your resources.

St. Edward’s offers a wide range of services to help you manage college life: a writing center, math lab, tutoring, personal counseling, career coaching and disability assistance. Connecting with these resources can help you feel less overwhelmed. If you’re feeling intimidated about reaching out, your success coach can help you connect with these resources.

4. Find the growth opportunity after setbacks.

Success coaches can also help you put failure — or what feels like a failure in the moment — into context. If you earn your first C your freshman year of college, that may seem like a major mistake. But your coach can help you step back and realize that it’s not the end of the world. Instead, it’s an opportunity to develop resilience that will help you deal with setbacks for the rest of your life. “We talk with students about taking risks and getting comfortable with failure,” says success coach Chad Crawford. “We talk about how to bounce back from it and grow from it. We help the student understand that yes, this is a setback, but they’re still on track for their big-picture goal. And two years from now, you’ll be able to tell the story of what you learned from this experience.”

5. Remember everyone’s in the same boat.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not the only one. Talking about it with your friends or classmates can be helpful.. Your success coach knows this well. “I tell students, ‘You don’t know that other people in your class are scared, because you’re all acting like you’re cool, but you’re not the only one,’” says Mary Culkin. “I remind them that I’ve heard other students talk to me about how the class is hard. They’re normal!” Culkin often helps students get connected with the math lab, where it’s not unusual for them to run into someone else from their class — a potential study buddy.

6. Keep the big picture in mind, but focus on this week.

It’s important to stay focused on your future goals, including your career. But if you live in the future, you’re missing out on today, and you’re probably feeling stressed. Your success coach can help you learn how to allocate mental energy for both the long-term future and the next few days.

For example, if you want to go to medical school, you’ll need a strong record in the sciences. Yes, you should be thinking about the MCAT, but maybe this week you have an exam in a biology class. The best way to make progress toward your big goal is to achieve smaller ones, like reviewing for your test and reaching out to your professor for 10 minutes during virtual office hours. Your success coach can help you stay on track. “Keep thinking about your career plans,” says success coach Dina Mireles, “but let’s also focus on getting to Friday.”

By the time you graduate, you’ll be your own success coach.

Your success coach will help you get manage the changes that come with starting college. After your freshman year, a professor in your major will become your adviser, but your success coach will remain part of your support system. And over time, you’ll internalize what you learn in those conversations with your coach. You’ll graduate knowing how to keep yourself calm, focused and moving forward even in the face of adversity.