Mid-term series: How to handle deadline stress?

March marks the beginning of Spring season, but also the dawn of mid-term exams and graduate scheme deadlines. As you frantically submit your essays and application letters, your body may also send you several “help” signals caused by anxiety under time urgency (Friend, 1982). While your sweaty palms or your anxious racing heart can distract you from your work, the bigger distractions may well be your work habits. Not only can these work habits impede your work progress, but they can also often trigger a high level of cortisol, and puts your health at risk in the long run.

Take a look at the list below and see how many of them are applicable to yourself!



1. Old habit: Panicking about the deadlines and procrastinate until the due (or doom) date

There is often a time when you are drowning in multiple deadlines on the same day and you seek comfort in Netflix or the infinite scrolling on Instagram instead. And hours have gone by, you have achieved zero tasks other than finishing 5 seasons of The Office again. Then you start to panic…

According to Psychology Today, this is called a procrastination accumulation effect, which you ignore responsibilities that stress you out in exchange for temporary comfort and ease. Over time, these responsibilities pile up, so does your level of stress. So you end up falling into a vicious cycle of stress and deadlines.


New habit: Rationalise your mind and break down the tasks into small deadlines

Remember the last time you play Mario Bros, you need to survive several rounds of attacks and collect thousands of coins before you meet the boss? This is exactly how your work should feel like!

In order for you to process those weeks of unfinished readings and assignments, break them down according to their “importance” and “urgency” (The Eisenhower Matrix). Like a video game map overview, this table will help you to decide clearly what should you do first and what last.

Important and urgentImportant but not urgent
Urgent but unimportantUnimportant and not urgent

Within each grid, break them down into even smaller and more specific tasks. Supposed you have to finish a 2,500-word essay, you should be clear about your objectives (finishing 2 sections today, writing 2 paragraphs in each section), rather than writing “finish a 2,500-word essay”. 



2. Old habits: Talking yourself down and dwell on your past actions, or worry about future deadlines

Usually, the first old habit leads to this one. You procrastinate until Sunday afternoon and you suddenly realize the clock is ticking. So you aggressively type on your laptop with a distraught mind, as you ask yourself: “why didn’t I start earlier?”. On top of that, you may also obsessively wonder “what if I can’t complete it before the deadline?” and “what if I don’t even make it to the first interview?”.

The more you ask yourself these “what if’s” and “why didn’t I”, the longer you dwell on those negative past actions. As Kathy Gruver, a well-known health and well-being author, puts it, not only will reliving these experiences make you feel more frustrated, it will also trigger stress responses in your body repetitively.


New habit: Focus only on what you can do and what you can control

Following the last habit, you should focus on what needs to be done and what can be done right now in the “important and urgent” grid. Then practise the following 3Rs:

Realize your human power: Acknowledge the fact that you can’t change your past actions or dictate the future. And controlling your actions in the present is already a way for you to control the future. 

Realistic thoughts: Do a reality check with your anxious thoughts on the possible negative outcomes – “What’s so scary about it? What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? What would you have to do to actually reach that stage?”

Revise your self-talk: Your actions are reflective of your attitude and mindset. So by fueling positive thoughts to you mind (“I can finish this now”), you will only be more productive. 





3. Old habits: Multitasking different tasks at the same time and ends up with minimal achievement

This is particularly common when you are tackling several deadlines at the same time and they are all equally important. In this case, you are processing 2 tasks in the present and running 10 in the background, much like your laptop, but except you are not a robot and you are not conditioned to be a multi-tasker.

In fact, most of us aren’t multi-taskers. A study conducted by Watson & Strayer (2010) shows that only 2.5% of the people among their 200 participants can effectively multitask, and the rest show performance decrements with processing 2 tasks simultaneously.


New habit: Focus on one thing at a time!

Earlier, you have learned to focus on the most important and urgent tasks in the present. Now you will learn to focus on each of the small and specific goal – one at a time. While the first 2 techniques can help you to be more realistic and organised when tackling a pile of tasks, the following skills can help you to perform with the highest productivity.

Fully immerse yourself in one task. You can only learn and understand 100% of the task if you pay full attention to it. And by doing that you are naturally filtering out irrelevant information and distractions, such as your anxious thoughts as discussed above.

Turn off all distractions. Even if you are trying to focus, your gadgets will somehow find a way to lure you out of your focus zone with an Instagram update.  Turn off all notifications, and limit your phone usage time with a timer app!  

Pomodoro technique. It is not a novelty that we have a short attention span like a goldfish so in the early 90s, Francesco Cirillo invented the Pomodoro technique to fight out inborn shortcomings. 

A. You choose a certain task to complete.
B. Set a timer to 25 – 30 minutes.
C. Work on the task until the timer sets off.
D. Take a short break (5 minutes) and continue.
E. Repeat these steps until the task is completed.

 4. Old habit: Working non-stop for 24/7!

We can all related to that time when we rush our revision merely a day before the exam by pulling an all-nighter. Though it may feel like the first few hours were the most productive time of your whole undergraduate years, soon after a few hours, you cannot cram a single word in your brain anymore. Sadly, the clock is ticking and you are 8 hours (and 10 chapters) away from your exam…


New habit: Plan some downtime for your brain!

This downtime technique refers to taking a long break away from your chosen task, besides the 5 minutes intervals break you have learned just now.

Scientifically speaking, your optimal productivity is measured at 40 hours a week. This is backed by The Yerkes-Dodson Law, which our performance level increases until we reach a certain point of arousal. Beyond the optimum will lead to anxiety and memory lapse.

So how can you plan your downtime?

•  Take a long walk outside.
•  Try meditation. 
•  Exercise regularly.
•  Sleep at least 7 hours a day!
•  Limit your screen time and read a book for leisure instead.



These new habits aren’t hardcore sciences but for them have a sustainable impact on your deadline-heavy life, you must invest with commitment, consistency, and patience. Get started now even if you are moving one baby step at a time!

p.s. If you have been consistently having twitching eyes, or tingly arms, listen to your body and give yourself some rest!

Adas is an English language graduate from the U.K., now transiting from recruitment to academia (exciting!). While she is not at her desk working or researching, she likes argue with strangers or watch strangers arguing in debating competitions as an avid debater and debate judge. Feel free to reach out if you want some advice on job application, public speaking, or career planning!

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