Dr. Jessica A. Gold is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis and a staff psychiatrist at Habif Health and Wellness Center.


One of the hardest things to manage for any college student is time. The minute you set foot on campus, you are pulled in a hundred different directions: You want to do well in school and take all the necessary classes for your major. You want to participate in extracurricular activities — including sports, music, and clubs — and become a leader in them. And at the same time, you may be working one or more jobs to help finance your education.

Somehow, you are expected to balance all of these — work, school, extracurriculars, and your social life — while staying emotionally healthy.

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Many students tell me they are doing 'fine' balancing work and all of their activities with school. They talk about adding another class or shift without truly being aware of what their real calendars look like.

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This task is by no means an easy one. As a psychiatrist on a college campus, I have seen many students be successful at balancing all of their expectations with their mental health, but I have also seen them struggle.

I previously wrote about tips for maintaining mental health in college, and mental health continues to play a role here, especially when lack of time gets in the way of sleeping well, eating healthily, and exercising. As we head into finals season, I want to specifically focus on balance and time management skills. Below are a few tips to help you balance work and college from a mental health perspective.

Balancing Work and College With Proper Planning

Many students tell me they are doing "fine" balancing work and all of their activities with school. They talk about adding another class or shift without truly being aware of what their real calendars look like.

Because of this tendency, I recommend that every student write out their weekly calendar, hour by hour, including classes, work, sports, extracurriculars, and socializing. You can do this on your phone, but often taking pen to paper or using a planner adds a different view. Color coding different activities can also help highlight how little time is left for self-care or socializing.

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As a psychiatrist on a college campus, I have seen many students be successful at balancing all of their expectations with their mental health, but I have also seen them struggle.

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Writing out your commitments hour by hour for a week may seem tedious or you may think, "I already know what I have to do," but seeing it written out can really help you better manage your time, prioritize your mental health and enjoyable activities, and decide if you truly can afford to add one more thing and still maintain balance.

This bird's-eye view of your schedule might also help you better plan out your classes and shifts and decide if, for example, you should try to have no classes in the evenings so you can work, or not work Tuesdays so you can take the one class you absolutely need to take.

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How to Set Boundaries by Learning to Say "No"

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest skills to learn as an adult, let alone as a college student trying to please others and live up to expectations. When opportunities arise, students typically feel honored or grateful to be asked, or feel like they need to say "yes" to have something else happen in the future (e.g., to get into medical school or to land an internship). Often, it may feel like you are saying "yes" to something for yourself when it is actually in spite of yourself or at a detriment to yourself — especially to your mental health.

In the moment, it can be hard to know what to do, which is why students should always take time to pause and weigh the pros and cons of any request or additional project. Even if it feels like there is no way on earth you would say no to a request, take the time to pause and check in with your emotions. Ask yourself, "Why do I want to do this?"

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[Checking] in with yourself can help you understand your own purpose for doing something, which in turn lets you set boundaries and expectations. It is completely okay to do some things because you need to, but it is also okay to say no.

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Sometimes the answer is that you need the money, so you perform the extra shift. Sometimes the answer is that you think it will help your career or graduate school prospects. Sometimes you actually love the work, even if you don't have the time or energy to do it.

Whatever the reason, checking in with yourself can help you understand your own purpose for doing something, which in turn lets you set boundaries and expectations. It is completely okay to do some things because you need to, but it is also okay to say no. Saying no is one of the most powerful things we can do for self-care, and in any case, there will be many opportunities to say yes in the future.

Break Down Large Tasks into Smaller Ones

In my experience, one of the things that causes students the most anxiety is feeling like everything is due at once, or thinking, "I have so much to do; I will never get it done." These thoughts are how anxiety takes hold, and anticipation of the future makes it hard for you to even start work, much less finish it.

One way to help with feeling overwhelmed is to write out all of the things you have to do. Not just large things like "write a paper," but small tasks, like "research in the library for the introduction," "re-read the chapter in the textbook the paper is based on," or "write the introduction of the paper."

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It is important that you work on what is due tomorrow, not what is due in two weeks. In other words, ask yourself, 'What needs to be done right now?'

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By breaking the big tasks into small ones, you will see tangible steps you can accomplish. You can then celebrate the small wins and feel like you are making progress. You might finally be able to take a deep breath instead of just worrying about running out of time.

In addition to breaking down tasks, prioritizing them is key. You might only have 1-2 hours after work to get homework done. It is important that you work on what is due tomorrow, not what is due in two weeks. In other words, ask yourself, "What needs to be done right now?"

Students can use paper, their planners, or even to-do list apps on their phones. However you decide to prioritize what's in front of you, writing it down helps you see what still needs to be done and make the most of the limited time you have.

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Balancing College Life by Communicating and Asking for Help

When balancing work and college, one of the most important things is to communicate with your coworkers, managers, professors, and advisors about all that you have on your plate.

Notifying people does not mean they have to know everything about you and what you are going through, but it is important for them to know all of your commitments so they can be flexible and afford extra time for you when it is needed. Doing so also sets a strong foundation for trust in the future.

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Ultimately, asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. Sometimes that help is from peers, a boss, or a professor, and sometimes it is from mental health professionals. Communicating one's needs is a mentally healthy choice.

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Often, when people work and are in school full time, managers will allow them to decrease hours or take time off of work around exam periods and increase hours at other times to make up for it. Professors can also be quite accommodating if stress or anxiety from extra commitments makes students unable to turn something in on time.

Be upfront with a professor about commitments at the beginning of the semester, before it feels like an "excuse," and be honest about your commitments. Even if it does not feel like it, professors want you to succeed, and I have seen many situations where they have made accommodations to help a student do so.

Ultimately, asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. Sometimes that help is from peers, a boss, or a professor, and sometimes it is from mental health professionals. Communicating one's needs is a mentally healthy choice.

The College Experience Is Not The Same for Everyone

One of the things we tell students is that, just as people follow different paths to college, they follow different paths in college. Not everyone takes the same number of credits, participates in the same activities, works full time, or graduates in four years. There is no perfect college student nor a perfect way to balance work and college; there is only what works best for you.

You don't need to compare your path to anyone else's, and it's fine if, as a result of trying to balance work and school, college ends up taking more than four years. Recognizing our limitations and being open to creating our own paths, even if they're not "typical," is a key to finding balance from a mental health perspective.