How to Reduce Stress by Prioritizing and Getting Organized

Stress and anxiety can sometimes feel like internal clutter or chaos, so it’s no surprise that some of us find ourselves struggling to stay organized when we’re stressed. It works the other way, too — we can find ourselves more stressed when our space, schedules, and to-do lists feel out of control.

We’ve all been there, right? For many of us, one of the biggest hurdles to productivity is prioritizing or organizing our thoughts, especially when we’re rushed, trying to accomplish a lot or have a past due item hanging over our heads. The good news is that by prioritizing and getting organized we can reduce stress which helps make us feel more confident about our tasks at work, school, and home.

It’s Not About Perfection: You Have to Start Somewhere

It’s important to remember that the goal of organizing and prioritizing isn’t just to get everything done but to complete tasks without feeling pressure or having the stress of being behind all the time. When you prioritize and organize you can operate more effectively and free up time for self-care and for helpful routines (sleep, exercise, etc).

Getting organized and prioritizing can only work if your schedule isn’t imbalanced, though. If you find it impossible to stay on top of life tasks, it may be time to look at your obligations and see where you can cut back. Likewise, if organizing tasks, space, and schedule isn’t stopping stress and anxiety from interfering with school, work, and relationships, then you may want to consider exploring stress management techniques or working with someone who specializes in life organization or management. If your challenge staying organized stems from overwhelming feelings, like depression or anxiety, then consider consulting a mental health professional who can help create a plan to cope with the underlying feelings.

Tips for Prioritizing

Two things that can get in the way of our plans to prioritize are not clearly ordering tasks and underestimating how much time they’ll take. If we have to stop after every task and spend time weighing the pros and cons of what to do next, then we aren’t maximizing our time and could be creating more stress and frustration. Here are four simple steps to prioritizing:

  1. Write it down: Make a list of tasks with deadlines (be sure to build in enough time for slight delays or need for revisions)
  2. Rank it: Order each in importance
  3. Add it to your calendar: Put tasks in your calendar in blocks so you have time to complete them
  4. Be flexible: Revisit your list as things come up or need adjusting

Remember to avoid distractions when focused on a task. Despite what it feels like, humans don’t actually multitask, they serially toggle. In fact, research shows that it takes about 25 minutes to return to the original task after a distraction, even if it’s really brief. In other words, the 30 seconds you dedicate to quickly check in on social media doesn’t actually take 30 seconds, it takes 25 minutes and 30 seconds! So, try to stick to one task at a time. Give yourself breaks and use those to check emails, look at social media, etc. Many of us are the most productive at the beginning of our day or our work sessions, so you may want to prioritize tasks that require more focus earlier than later. This also helps you to limit procrastinating (not that you’d do that).

Tips for Organizing

Organizing looks different for everyone. For some of us, we know exactly where a piece of paper is in a pile on our desks, even when it looks chaotic to others. Some of us need things color-coded, itemized, placed in labeled folders, etc. Others of us are somewhere in between. It’s important to find what works for you and more importantly, what you can maintain over time. Don’t strive for perfection and then beat yourself up when those papers start to pile up. Try and think about what will help and what you can keep up with.

There are two areas to focus on when it comes to organization: your space and your calendar. Research proves that clutter actually affects our brains and it’s hard to concentrate when you’re surrounded by too much stuff. In fact, a Princeton University study found that the presence of “task-irrelevant objects” can make it substantially more difficult to focus. That doesn’t mean you need to get all Marie Kondo, but clearing some space and putting things away can lead to reduced stress and more productivity.

Organize Your Space

We can’t control your messy roommate, but you have ½ the room, so here’s what you can do to control your own space.

Organize your drawers

Let’s get real. A parent or caregiver probably got you all moved in and now you have clothes vomiting out of every drawer. Take an hour, pull everything out and try and group items together: sweatshirts, sweatpants, underwear/bras, shorts, t-shirts, you get the picture. If you know which drawer holds which items, it makes it that much easier to find things when you are late to that 8am class.

Organize your books/folders/files

From actual textbooks to digital syllabi, assignments, and more, keeping track of all your work and materials is daunting. If you can, try and create folders on your Google Drive for each class and keep your books neatly stacked on your desk for easy reference. And because the internet can be finicky it might help to have a binder with important notes and files printed in case you ever need to reference something when the wi-fi goes down.

Organize your backpack or briefcase

It’s your lifeblood. And, if you’re in school, it probably holds a lot more than just books. From supplies like pens, pencils, and paper, to protractors, calculators, snacks, keys, and your computer, your backpack holds everything and then some. In order to be sure you have everything you need for the day, create a checklist for each day with all of your classes and what you need and pack up the night before. This way you know exactly what you need for each class and aren’t running home to get something when you’re pressed for time.

Organize Your Calendar

It’s easy to forget things when they aren’t written down. That’s why keeping a calendar (digital or paper, if you’re old school) is such a game changer. By having things in your calendar, you free up brain space that you’d need to remember them. This takes some pressure off and allows you to focus on the tasks at hand.

Here are a few things you can and should put in your calendar:

  1. All your classes
  2. Assignment due dates
  3. Clubs and extracurricular activities
  4. Office hours or other meetings with your teachers or professors
  5. Group project meetings
  6. Your job schedule (if you have one)
  7. Any credit card or other bills you need to pay monthly

For anything important, be sure to set alerts (minutes, hours, or a day before) and you can even put assignments at the top of a digital calendar as an All Day event to remind you what you need to work on or hand in.

When It All Becomes Too Much

Maybe you’ve tried to prioritize and get organized and it’s not helping. Or maybe you know someone who just can’t seem to get on top of all they need to do. JED has resources to help, and of course, if you’re struggling with stress or know someone who is, don’t hesitate to ask for help and speak to a professional.


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If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.