Homework overload: here’s how to deal

If you feel like you’re drowning under the sea of assignments and tests, follow our eight tips to get your head back above the water.

student overloaded from schoolwork
Marina Cilona Young Adult writer and mum of two BA(Hons) Wednesday, 26 June 2019

You’ve probably heard the saying, “The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” 

Despite the ethical implications of an aphorism that suggests you eat endangered wildlife, it is a useful one to remember whenever you feel overwhelmed by your ever-growing task list.  

Like a six-thousand kilo elephant, your homework is something you have to tackle bit by bit. Even if you’ve got eight assignments and three tests to study for, there are ways to reduce your stress so that you can work through each task without crumbling.

1. Start early and use your diary

If your homework is beginning to resemble a giant tsunami surging towards you, you might have failed to properly take into account deadlines. Even if everything is due at once, chances are you weren’t set every assignment on the same day or in the same week. You need to find a good way to keep track of deadlines and other important dates to ensure you leave enough time to get it all done.  

Google Calendar is a great way to start. You could even take an analogue approach and get a giant planner to pin on your wall. Once you’ve chosen your toolset, you need to schedule the process of getting yourself to the deadline. This means counting back from D-day so you know when to start a piece of work. This is particularly important for group assignments (which can be a logistical nightmare!) or for longer pieces of work where you’re required to do research or submit drafts. You also need to take into account other deadlines around the same time.  

2. Share the load

Do you really need to do everything all on your own or can you share the load with your friends? Now, now, we’re NOT condoning copying or other acts of dishonesty! But sometimes there are valuable ways to consolidate the requirements for a project while still learning everything that you need to learn. For a Humanities assignment that requires research, perhaps you can divide and conquer. You’ll still need to teach each other what you’ve learned, which is incidentally also a great way to consolidate your understanding. 

3. Negotiate

Even if you carefully note all deadlines, you may still find that everything is due on the same day. Eek! The thing is, teachers often don’t speak to their colleagues about stuff like this, so they don’t know that every single teacher in the school has chosen the same due date for work. And sometimes – like the end of term – it’s inevitable that everything will come in at the same time. 

But what if the reason you’re overloaded is personal? Perhaps you have an important sporting event that’s going to interfere with your prep time. You might just need to ask one or some of your teachers for an extension. Your school might have a policy about this, but either way, it doesn’t hurt to approach your teacher privately, explain the situation politely, and ask if there’s anything they can do to take a bit of pressure off you.  

It probably goes without saying that you’ll be much more successful the earlier you request an extension. Don’t leave it till the last minute — that just suggests that you’re not very organised. And no need to feel that you have to pile on the drama. You may feel dramatic about it, but generally teachers are more responsive to a sensible, logical argument and a reasonable suggestion.

4. Just do it

Sometimes the best thing you can do is just get the work done. Even if you decide to do a less-than-perfect job in order to meet the deadline, you’ll still learn from the feedback you receive. Of course, the lower the stakes, the easier this advice is to follow, so it may be a matter of determining the importance of each task in terms of how heavily the mark will affect your grade or how important the subject is to you. 

We’ve all had to make the decision to just get something done, rather than give it all the time it deserves, so don’t feel too bad about it. If, on the other hand, you have a tendency to hold back on submitting tasks because you don’t think they’re good enough, you may be a perfectionist.  

We think of perfectionism as a desirable trait, and it does suggest that you care about doing your best, which is admirable. But perfect doesn’t exist. We’re all doing our best in the time allotted. And if you never hand anything in, you never get the feedback you need to improve and progress. So, resist your desire to avoid completing your homework. Avoid avoidance. Just do it, submit it, move on. 

5. Keep living

When you’re stressed, there’s a natural temptation to limit everything else you do. You certainly do need to spend time focusing. But just sitting at your desk, doing a little bit of that subject and a little bit of this subject but not really doing anything because you’re so BORED won’t help. Go for a walk, take a nap, return refreshed. 

6. Gain some clarity

Feeling overwhelmed may have less to do with the quantity of work in front of you and more to do with the fact that you’re not entirely clear about what’s required. It sounds obvious, but it’s remarkable how many students avoid starting a task carefully because they think it’s bigger and more confusing than it really is. 

So, read the question. Once you’ve read it, do you understand what you have to do? If not, the temptation will be to put your head in your hands and a) tell yourself you’re stupid, b) tell yourself that your teacher is stupid and/or a terrible person, or c) get involved in a long Whatsapp thread with your friends to talk about how you’re stupid AND your teacher is a terrible human.  

To avoid this scenario, make some notes about what you find confusing and/or hard to follow and arrange to talk to your teacher tomorrow to gain some clarity. 

7. Start, even for a few minutes

While this might seem counterintuitive, it can be really useful to start something, even if you don’t have much time. Maybe you do only have fifteen minutes before you have to go to soccer training, or it’s late and you want to go to bed. But you also have that essay to begin and the blank screen can be so discouraging. Just write something, anything. A couple of sentences are enough. You’ll come back to it tomorrow and change them, so no need to agonise too much.  

Don’t underestimate how much momentum just starting can bring to the situation. Tomorrow, when you come back to the task, you’re not facing a blank screen. Sure, you may need to make some revisions, but you’ll be surprised how decent the words you wrote often are. At least there’s something to work with. 

8. Get some help

If none of these points really help you to eat the elephant, then try something else. At Cluey, you can work with your personal tutor on your homework and maybe fill some of those skills and knowledge gaps that are making you feel anxious. Importantly, we can demystify your assignments, give you valuable feedback on how best to tackle each problem, and build your confidence. You don’t need to feel overloaded or alone with your homework again.


Dr Selina Samuels
Chief Learning Officer

BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd

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