Ask Sophie: how to avoid student burnout

Graphic by Quinn Sherer | Mercury Staff

As college students, we are fixated on individual productivity, and we often equate our self-worth with academic success. Yet, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is pushing us to let go of our unrealistic expectations on productivity.

Let’s be honest: last semester was a nightmare. The endless stream of eLearning notifications, Teams calls and Blackboard meetings kept many of us shackled to our desks, unable to tear our weary eyes away from our laptop screens. We were tired, anxious, or even depressed. Our academic proficiency was assessed solely by grades, and when graded on curves, our desire to do well made for stiff competition. If we performed poorly, we were not smart enough. If we could not readily adapt to the virtual format, we were not working hard enough.

The university is alleviating stress on students by allowing for some credit/no credit grading this semester, but the rigor of online school will not dissipate. So, it is up to us to know our limits and refrain from overworking. Here is what we can do to maintain healthy, balanced work schedules and avoid burnout this semester:

  1. Move away from an overly competitive mindset

Many students get bogged down in the competitive academic aspect of college. They fear that for every minute they sit idle, their peers are outperforming them. But we are human beings, not robots. We are not made to work or study constantly, and our peers are often not as effortlessly studious as we think, said Student Counseling Center psychologist Alanna Carrasco.

“One thing that I tell students about is the duck metaphor: on the surface, you know, if you look at a pond, there’s ducks out there and they’re just gliding and sitting on the water pretty calmly. But underneath, to stay afloat their little legs are just paddling, paddling, paddling,” Carrasco said. “I think that’s kind of what we see when we look out – metaphorically speaking – at our campus community. It just seems like everyone has it together, when really underneath people are scrambling and not getting good sleep, delving into their relationships or taking care of their mental and physical health.”

  • Keep work and life separate

I, like many other Comets, had trouble distinguishing between work and life last semester. My room was my office, yoga studio and sleep space all at once, and I often studied into the weekends and wee hours of the night. To cope with such a space constraint, Carrasco recommends physically orienting oneself in as many different environments – or parts of one’s environment – as possible. 

“That might mean just very basically changing out of your clothes, going to take a shower or going on a ten-minute walk just to kind of notify yourself, ‘Hey, that part of the [work] day or that part of what I was working on or doing is over for now’,” she said.

  • Check in on yourself

Even after schoolwork and extracurriculars, many of us feel an incessant need to be productive. But this life is like a giant hamster wheel: if we keep on running and running and running, when do we ever stop? There will always be things to do, so we must make time for what we love amidst all of it.

“There’s so many components that make up our overall wellness, and that can be our relational wellness, that can be our physical wellness, that can be spiritual, that can be intellectual – all of these different things,” Carrasco said. “But when we notice some of those mental health or emotional symptoms – maybe it kind of looks like increased anxiety, spiraling worries or trouble sleeping – it’s important to step back and say, ‘Okay, what is off balance in my wellness wheel? What area is maybe not being fulfilled? What do I feel I’m lacking in or maybe spending too much time doing?’” 

If school ever pushes you to obsess about intellectual wellness or neglect your mental wellness, check in with your social contacts to even out the parts of your wheel. This could be as simple as texting a friend or video calling a loved one, Carrasco said.   

Watching Netflix or doing yoga between classes may not feel like the most efficient way for me to spend my time this semester. Refraining from evening work and not dwelling on the advancements of my peers might not either. But in letting go of society’s toxic, impractical expectation that young people live to work and compete with one another, I will be spending my time perfectly well.

The Student Counseling Center (@utdcounseling on Facebook and Instagram) is committed to destigmatizing conversations about mental health and supporting students in times of distress. Do not hesitate to contact them at or 972-883-6413 to make a virtual appointment.