Exam season is officially upon us – here’s what you need to know about academic burnout (and how to avoid it)

It may sound dramatic but it was only when I got to university and was able to look back at my school experience that I realised how unhappy and burnt out I had been. I had been trapped in the toxic productivity echochamber myself. 

How do we avoid academic burnout?

People may tell you to take an evening off, have a bath, and stick on a face mask, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Ultimately burnout starts due to an unhealthy mindset of not knowing how to be successfully productive and feeling like you don’t deserve to stop. 

The way I approach work now is completely different. Here are my top tips for how I have overcome academic burnout: 

1. Work smarter, not harder 

I don’t mean don’t work hard, but working hard doesn’t necessarily mean 12-hour days, no lunch breaks, and answering emails all evening. How often have you sat down to work and spent the first hour staring at the screen? Set yourself short bursts of work with small achievable tasks for each session. Productivity does not necessarily equate to how many hours you spend at your desk.

2. Learn to prioritise

Which deadlines are urgent? What actually needs doing? Often when we’re studying, there’s an infinite amount of work you can do – take a moment to assess what will be the most productive use of your time today. Make to-do lists of small achievable tasks and tick them off as you go. Each tick gives a sense of achievement and makes you feel good about your work.

3. Stop!

Knowing when to stop and call it a day can be difficult. I definitely had (and sometimes still do) have the mindset that you can only stop when your brain feels fried and you can physically do no more. But there is nothing wrong (and it is often more productive) to stop when you reach a convenient point and you think ‘I’m happy with what I have done today and I know what I need to do tomorrow.’

4. Be rational

It’s mind over matter. It may be easier said than done but think to yourself ‘will this one thing I’m doing right now be something I will even think about in a month’s or even a week’s time?’ The answer is probably no. Take a break, rationalise the situation and then come back to it. Once you are in a stressed and panicked state of mind it is almost impossible to achieve anything productive. Instead practise staying level-headed and calm.

5. You will get it done 

This one comes with experience, but try and instil the belief in yourself that ‘you will get it done’. Again, I am not suggesting that if you do nothing, things will magically happen, but when I reflect on how often I have felt like hitting my head against a wall while trying to write an essay, in the end I always get it done. Sometimes I write it out as a manifestation, seeing it written on the page can make it seem more real, and helps me feel like I can do it.

17-year-old me thought that if I didn’t get into university my life would be over, so on results day when I logged into UCAS to find myself in clearing, I immediately felt like a failure. Fast track to four years later and I can say undoubtedly that missing my grades was the best thing that could have happened to me. It changed my path but I wouldn’t be where I am today if that hadn’t have happened. In the end, the thing I feared the most happened and I was OK.

When we are faced with a challenge it feels like being at the bottom of the mountain but remind yourself that you have been there before and have managed to climb it and reach the top. Work and studying will always be a process but striving for your goals should never result in burnout. 

If you are concerned about stress, it’s always recommended to book an appointment with your GP to discuss diagnosis and treatment. You can find your local GP here.