How Can I Reduce the Stress of School, Work and Life in General?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to reduce the
time pressure and stress of competing priorities.

Question: Lately I have been feeling super stressed between work and my school and you could even say my lifestyle. I know in my head that school is my main priority, but my mind seems to stress and wonder about my life and also work. I wish I could focus better on school and put all my time into that but it’s hard when I need to work for money, and also have a life of some sort. I work as a babysitter and it may sound easy but I can assure you it is not. I have to drive them to activities and get them from school which is a pretty far drive. They complain a ton and I try my best but I am only 20 years old and need to make sure I have the right amount of energy for my school time. Sometimes I feel as if they don’t understand I have a life outside of their home. And I have many things I try to remember and keep track of also while keeping track of all their homework assignments and after school activities.

So my question is, is there anything I can do that will truly help me relieve the stress I have? I would love to have enough time for work, school and also family & friends.

Response: It sounds as though your mind is whirring with many things, all of the time: The activity in which you are involved at the moment, schedules, to-do lists, phone calls and emails you need to answer, and the trivia of daily life, with occasionally serious concerns to tackle—all while trying to read and remember academic material well enough to recognize it on a multiple choice test (and be able to apply it in real life one day soon.)

You say you are twenty years old. That is a difficult transition time for many young adults, even those who are not juggling as many things as you are. However, right at this moment, you are establishing the foundation for the way you want to live the rest of your life—the decades ahead of you in which you become all you wish for and hope for. How you manage your time, life and relationships now is practice for how you will handle increasing challenges in the future.

Most of us want a life of joy and achievement, in which we are respected and admired by respectable and admirable people. We want emotional and physical health. We want to have some fun and share that fun with others. We also want to do good and not do harm to anyone or anything. Perhaps you can embrace this current situation as a way to mature and achieve in ways that many others your age will not have the opportunity to do for several years yet—and some never will. There is an old song by the Eagles from back in the 1980’s, but still played now and then, that says, “So often times it happens that we spend our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.”

You can find the key and remove the chains that you feel around you. However, it does sound as though you need to make a few adjustments before you can use your activities to benefit you rather than having them add to your mental confusion and pressure. Here are some things to consider:

1. If you can find a free or low-cost professional counselor, I think you should use that resource as soon as possible. You could explain the details of your situation to a counselor better than you can do in a brief note to us. A counselor can listen and ask questions, observe your demeanor and have a better understanding of the demands on your time. A counselor could give you personalized advice or at least give you the opportunity to talk through the situation to the point that you are led to your own solutions.

Most universities offer counseling for students. Or, perhaps you could contact someone who teaches in the areas of counseling, psychology, or similar subjects. They may know of local resources that could assist you—or they may have advice based on long experience with students in similar situations. You may find it worthwhile to talk to several people you respect, then combine some of their thoughts or advice.
Whatever resources you use, I do hope you will seek some close-to-home assistance with your concerns. You don’t need counseling to cure a problem, you just need counseling to help you develop some options so you can choose what is best for you right now. What is best for you may change in six months, but once you see how to find the right path for yourself, you’ll be able to stay on it, even when there are obstacles or barriers that require a detour.

2. Time, like money, will be most useful to you if you budget it according to priorities and preferences.

*The first time allocation should be for sleep, which is especially true for a busy student. There is a temptation to try to stay awake late or wake up early, in an effort to create more time for study, friends or work. However, the late night or early morning time is often unproductive and eventually even regular waking hours are less effective. Your mind and body will be less able to handle the demands placed upon them and you will feel even more stressful. In addition, your immune system will be damaged and you will lose any time you gained, because you may very well end up sick. You may be able to refresh a bit by taking a quick nap a couple of times a day, but your body needs long (8 hours) of uninterrupted sleep every 24 hours.

*The second time allocation is for something you can do that will recharge your mind and spirit. It doesn’t have to be a long time each day, but there should be some time—maybe twenty or thirty minutes—for reading, listening or viewing, in which you can think about something helpful or uplifting that is bigger than yourself. Entertainment is one way to recharge, but before that, spend some time nurturing your mind and spirit. Healthy eating is part of that recharging process.

*Next is school and the homework and study that goes with it. You know how many hours you will be in class and on what days. Add to it a reasonable but not excessive amount of time for homework and study. I say not excessive, because I’ve found that many students will come up with a completely unrealistic amount of time they want to commit to study. You know your situation best, but unless it is essential for you to have straight A’s in every class, every year, you can do your best and get good grades, without obsessively seeking perfection in yourself or your academic work.

Technology can make it possible for you to do your homework or extra reading in almost any location. Even if the work is only draft mode due to distractions, at least it is a way to get started and keep going.

*Next is work. If you are taking too many academic hours to maintain the work you need financially, you may need to reduce academic hours. Or, you may need to find a job that pays you more, so you can maintain your academic schedule and have a comfort level financially. That is easy for me to say but not so easy to do. However, it sounds to me as if your work as an after-school nanny is not very fulfilling to you and it is involving more time than you had anticipated.

*Make full use of checklists, calendars and schedules, to remind you of what must be done, what you’d like to do and what is a possibility if the other two are done. Those aren’t punishing mental nags, they are helpers, so think of them pleasantly as a way to keep you going with reduced stress.

3. I use the term nanny, since you do not just go to a home and babysit, you are an integral part of the after-school life of the youngsters in your care. It can be very tiring mentally and physically fatiguing. I have also noticed that there can be a tremendous amount of work-scope creep. By that I mean, that you may have started out thinking you would do a specific set of activities and it seemed doable. However, over time, the things you were expected to do increased (and the amount of time required to do them also increased) but the money stayed the same. You can either ask for more money, to make it worth your while, or say that you no longer can spend so much time doing the work.

That’s easier for me to say than for you to do, I realize. But, here is a link you may find helpful. (The website is useful, overall.)

You mentioned that your employer has complained to you recently. If the problem is that you are not fulfilling your work to the level you had promised, you will of course, need to decide it you can do it, then either do it or discuss your employer’s concerns with him/her and ask for specific directions about how to do the work better. If your employer has liked your work most of the time, you will be considered valuable enough to keep, even if there are a few problems temporarily. No matter what job you have you will want to fulfill it 100%. Maybe 105%. But, 150% isn’t necessary at this stage in your work life and you shouldn’t feel guilty about not going far above and beyond your work requirements, unless there is an extreme emergency.

One thing is for sure, you do need to place boundaries on the time you spend at your employer’s house or running errands or performing tasks. Determine the hours in which you can work or have promised to work, then arrive precisely on time, not early) and set your phone’s alarm for about half an hour before you have to leave. Let your employer know that you have a set time to leave, then leave promptly, even if it means you can’t say more than a brief goodbye. If you stay after that time, your employer will get the idea that you have time available on other evenings too.

You may decide some other type of part-time work will be better for you, but that will be a decision to weigh with all of the circumstances in mind—and hopefully with some advice and guidance from others who understand your full situation.

4. Your last time category is discretionary time, when you can decide what you want to do with that time—as little or as much as you have of it. You can also consider whether or not what you want to do will help you with your future, will it just “kill” time or will it keep you from using the rest of your time effectively. Your age is when so many young women and men do things that haunt them for the rest of their lives, so be especially mindful of your ethical, moral and spiritual values.

If you have a romantic relationship, it may be that your companion will need to accept and accommodate your limited time, at least for now. That can be a problem if your companion has much more free time or a completely different schedule. But, you should never give up sleep, school, homework or work, to allow you to have private time with someone else at this crucial stage of your life planning and preparation. It’s not fair for anyone to ask you to do that and you should not volunteer. You will regret it or resent it later, if doing so takes you off your path.

I’m giving you that advice as someone who, decades ago, didn’t graduate on schedule, because my boyfriend wanted me to spend more time with him, so I cut class after class, which drastically lowered my grades. Then, because I repeatedly stayed “just a few minutes more” with him, I didn’t get my homework done before my evening part-time work and would stay up almost all night to do it. As a result of sleeping only two or three hours a night, not eating well and losing focus on my priorities, I harmed my ability to fight off illnesses and contracted mononucleosis, then meningitis, which almost killed me! I lost my job and missed two months of school, after which I dropped out–a semester before graduation—which led to other decisions that were not in line with my original goals. Years later, I finally got my degree, but I had planned on having an advanced degree by that point in my life. The romance didn’t even last past my illnesses. It wasn’t his fault completely—I just didn’t set limits, because I hadn’t budgeted my time or my energies. You can do better than that!

5. The final thing for you to consider is this: From what you describe, your life sounds as if it is doable, it just doesn’t have much wiggle room. You aren’t completely tied up in knots, but you don’t feel as free and happy as you would like to be. Many married people experience the same or more time and life pressures. Your employers probably felt they were under too much pressure, which is why you were hired to help. Your instructors probably feel no one understands the pressure they are under. Pressure and stress is so common that there are millions of on-line articles about it.

“Resilience” is a phrase that is often used to describe a way to handle stress. I agree that we should develop the strength and flexibility to help us bounce back after being stretched by daily and extreme stress. That is the purpose of taking time to sleep, eat healthily and take care of your mind, body and spirit. However, I often suggest that we also commit to becoming buoyant.

Buoyancy enables us to pop back up and stay afloat, even when the pressures and stresses of daily life might otherwise push us under. Buoyance is obtained by having a light heart, a mind that refuses to get bogged down in the drama of those around us or in the negative things that seem to be part of so many aspects of social media and news media. Make it a goal to talk buoyantly to others. Smile. Establish your time and money budget and live within those. Make this a time to be your best self in trying circumstances, so you will know how to handle life, work and relationships, as you continue down your chosen path.

Best wishes to you! If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how things are working out. Your situation probably won’t clear up overnight, but I’m confident you will be able to breathe easier soon.

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.