Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #9: Stress Management

A poem from my collection, “Haiku for Stress Relief”:

When the walls start to

close in; call your grandma.

She still loves you.

A colleague of mine once noted that when we get stressed, we stop doing those things that help us deal with stress. That immediately hit home with me, and I still think about it all the time.

When I was an undergrad, I knew that getting too little sleep and too little exercise was my kryptonite. Yet if I were nervous about a big test or class presentation, I’d immediately skip exercising and stay up too late. For good measure, I would usually eat poorly and watch too much TV (I’m talking to you, binge watchers). All of this only stressed me out more, and I’d end up getting sick. The irony is that my performance would almost certainly have been better if I’d kept to my routine!

The Challenge of Stress

You’re going to experience stress during your college experience. If you don’t, you probably aren’t challenging yourself enough, or you’re sticking too closely to your comfort zone. As I’ve pointed out in a previous article, one of the advantages of college is the opportunity to try new things in a relatively safe environment. If you don’t seek out these new experiences, you can avoid stress but pay a pretty high cost in lost opportunities.

So the question is not, “How do I avoid stress?” but rather, “How do I manage stress?” I’m not a stress counselor, but based on my own personal experience and that of my students, I recommend finding routines and strategies that work for you, then sticking with them. It may not always be easy to follow your best stress-fighting strategies, but doing so makes a big difference.

Finding your own regimen is generally a matter of trial-and-error. I had one college classmate who had a rigid routine that kept him caught up with the academics and allowed him to stay healthy, too. His routine is irrelevant, but how he formed it matters a lot to our discussion here. Essentially, he thought about the practices that made him successful in high school, and then adapted them for college. He kept things that seemed to help and jettisoned aspects that weren’t right for the college setting, asking a wide range of people for advice as he put his weekly schedule in place.

My favorite part of the story is that he determined, early on, that he worked best when sitting in his parents’ recliner next to his favorite lamp. He eventually talked his parents into letting him move this chair and lamp into his dorm room! As a mutual friend once observed, “Every time I stop by his room, it’s like stepping into someone’s den.” Indeed, and it worked quite well for him.

Roommates are people, too.

Whenever I ask a certain colleague how a meeting went, she mutters, with considerable exasperation, “People.” I’m reminded of this whenever I ask frazzled students if they are OK, because they often respond with a list of roommate grievances.

Getting along with people, especially those with whom you don’t necessarily have much in common, is an important life skill. Yet it is very difficult (see Civilization, History of). I often hear people say that college roommate problems are widespread because it has become less common for students to share rooms with siblings before they head to college. That makes sense, but my friends and I all experienced different degrees of roommate issues, and sharing rooms with siblings was much more common at that time.

I suspect the issue is probably one of routines: As you and your roommate (or roommates) seek out new routines for college success, you may find yourselves working at cross-purposes. For example, you may work best later at night, and your roommate may be an early riser. That alone is going to lead to friction. Add in different interests, priorities, life experiences, habits, and so on, and the odds that you will both have the same strategies for success are slim-to-none.

But I have news for you: That’s life. If you think you’re going to find a life partner with the exact same routines and priorities as you, or that you’ll find a great job with an employer who is completely willing to let you do things your way, well, good luck with that. But for the vast majority of people, learning to be flexible and developing a range of strategies and routines is a key stepping stone to success.

Having said all that, I don’t want to give the impression that roommates are a universal source of stress (well … ). I just did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, and I had somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 roommates over the five years I spent studying for my first two degrees. Six of those guys were (and are) among the nicest, coolest people I’ve ever met, and another was fine. Seven out of 10 is pretty good!

The other three … suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time looking in the mirror and learning hard lessons about myself and how to get along with other people. Keep in mind that the roommate stressing you out is also probably being stressed out by YOU. It’s a two-way street, and I have also seen many students develop strong, healthy relationships with roommates that become a real source of strength for them. Use the golden rule and learn to roll with the ups-and-downs of living with someone.

Make your bed.

I recently listened to Tim Ferriss’ podcast about morning routines. He noted that many successful military commanders recommend that you make your bed first thing in the morning, due to the belief that accomplishing a concrete task gets your day off to a productive start right out of the gate. There is a lot of wisdom in this advice, and it goes far beyond your morning activities.

“Making your bed” has the broader meaning, to me, of creating and getting into productive routines. Does calling your grandma every Tuesday afternoon help keep you grounded? Skyping with your best friend from home on Thursday mornings? Going to church on the weekend? Volunteering at the food bank on Fridays? Chillin’ with your friends in the crocheting club Monday nights? Whatever it is, stick with it.

Get some sleep.

And I can share advice that is well-grounded in research: Don’t pull all-nighters. Cramming for an exam or staying up for 36 or more hours straight in order to finish a project almost always results, at best, in you performing about as well as you would have with normal sleep — but with more agitation and increased odds of getting sick.

As this research notes, lack of sleep “impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving.” And experts also point out that lack of sleep hurts memory formation. So you don’t notice what’s going on around you, you can’t focus, you can’t think, and you can’t remember as well. Oh, that’s all?

Sleep is one of those tricky things in life that is part biology, part routine, part mystery. Some people need a little, some people need a lot, and just about everyone doesn’t get enough. One thing that I’ve always found odd is when people tell me they are having a hard time sleeping. My immediate response is always to ask what strategies they’ve tried to address the problem, and more often than not, the response is something along the lines of, “Uh … nothing, really.” Lack of sleep isn’t something to tolerate, it’s a fixable problem that you can solve. Again, figure out what works for you.


  • Make your bed in the morning. Accomplishing something tangible first thing in the morning helps to set the tone for the day, and likewise, you’ll be able to end the day with the same sense of achievement.

  • Figure out the routines, habits, and activities that help you deal with life’s normal ups-and-downs, and stick to those things when times get tough.

  • Don’t be a martyr. If the stress gets to be too much, make an appointment at your college’s student health or counseling center, or get help from a professional counselor or psychologist. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so don’t neglect it.

  • Getting adequate sleep is important for just about every aspect of your life. You probably don’t need 10 hours per night, but you almost certainly need more than four. Good sleep is a key part of your daily routine.

Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College, as well as his two most recent posts, Make Every Obstacle an Opportunity and Be Proactive About Safety. You can also check out new installments each weekday through January 15, 2016.

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