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Improving Productivity: Studying or Working While You Are Chronically Sick or Depressed

Updated on October 15, 2015

Being at college and studying for your degree is quite a task in itself. There's the re-orientation, the adjustment of beginning a new phase of your life. Then there's the social integration and upheavals it entails, making new friends and getting to know teachers and admin staff. Not to mention the labour of settling down to new educational challenges, getting yourself into a new schedule and study habits, choosing modules and developing a work ethic, without schoolteachers and family to chivvy you along and make sure that you study.

It's tough. There's no arguing but that it's tough, a full-time job and more.

Maintaining Productivity Through Difficult Times

How about coping with all of that, at the same time as living with chronic illness or depression? Can you maintain your academic performance with that added pressure and obstacle? Many people are not presented with a choice: they just have to get on and do it. So how do you cope when you are trying to combine academic study with battling depression or chronic illness? (Certainly depression amongst students is not uncommon: one recent Guardian article about the UK Nightline college service chronicled 40 years of the listening service being made available to students, for problems including depression.)2

Plan Out Your Studies Step by Step

If you have a concrete, step by step plan for how you are going to get through your day's, week's and semester's studying, then you can measure how you are doing and whether you are coming up to the mark with your plans. It also helps to break your activities down into small steps, known by many productivity experts as 'baby steps'. If you're not feeling absolutely one hundred per cent, then it's a lot easier to approach a tiny sub-task that will take ten minutes or so, rather than an entire essay that will require hours of research. Don't overwhelm yourself with the size of the tasks you attempt to complete in one go. If you have to nibble away at a task to get it done, then get nibbling!

Great Resources For College Student Productivity

* Free Online Course Materials | MIT OpenCourseWare

Free resources from the college where some of the smartest people in the world study and teach!

* Main Page - Gutenberg

Free text and audiobooks - hundreds of classic texts available!

* Nightline: Student information and support

If youre a student and you need information or support, we're here to help. No matter what you want to talk about, call us - we're here to listen. (UK based).

* Samaritans Home Page

Samaritans provides confidential emotional support 24/7 to those experiencing despair, distress or suicidal feelings. (UK based).

Minimise Non-essential Tasks

Are you prioritising to the max? If it's really important to get through your degree and to keep to your studying schedule, then how important is everything else? I'm not saying don't do any laundry for a semester or cease to bathe. But dusting, filing and ironing, for example, have certainly taken a back seat for me during periods where essential and important targets had to be met. Sometimes you have to decide what really matters and let other things slide a bit.

Get Maximum Bang For Your Buck

I can't claim originality with this idea: it's both originated elsewhere and basic common sense. There's an economic idea known as the 'Pareto Principle',1 which in essence suggests that most of your productive results come from a small percentage of your efforts. Now, obviously, if you can locate which of your activities it is that produce most of your successful outcomes, then you can minimise your effort while maximising your successful outcomes. Examples of successful and productive activity might be specific revision techniques, such as group study or listening to mp3 files of lectures, or self-testing such as answering questions under exam conditions. Of course, being able to identify your most successful study techniques is key! But if you are struggling with chronic ill-health, whether mental or physical, it is all the more important to know where to devote your limited energies for the maximum return.

If you have periods of remission and alleviation where you can get more done, and more effectively, then you can also utilise these to the full. Don't run yourself down by going over the top: but still, take advantage of periods of buoyant health by focusing on the areas that are most essential and valuable in terms of completion, while it lasts.

Use Your Resources To The Full

Students today are lucky! You have all kinds of electronic resources that simply weren't available back in the day. And if you are facing health challenges while coping with your studies, then it's very important that you make the utmost use of them. Mp3 players can be invaluable in enabling you to passively listen to and learn lecture note material. Many educational institutions and college teachers will make an abbreviated version of lecture notes available via the college intranet, and some even have videoed lectures available. You're not even restricted to the educational materials of your own institution: many prestigious institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, make tons of course material freely available over the net. Don't fail to capitalize on such an opportunity!

Get Your Allies On-side

Most colleges and educational institutions in these times will take medically recognized problems into account. Don't be embarrassed, if and when necessary, to use the strategies and allowances on offer in order to better cope with your studies and manage your ailments: whether it amounts to extensions on deadlines, periods of illness being taken into account for grading purposes or being allowed to complete modules later than specified, or even to take a year out should it prove necessary.

But also make sure you know the protocols and paperwork necessary to do any of these things, prior to it becoming a matter of urgency should you have to do so. And build your relationships with the people you may need to discuss such a move with: your medical professionals both within and external to your educational institution, admin staff and your tutors, both class and personal. It may be a good idea to make sure they are aware of the obstacles you are struggling with. If your college offers counselling services this may also be something worth checking out.

Don't be lax in keeping in touch with friends and family either. At times it may seem like just one more task in an overloaded day to send an email or return a call: but these are the people who really care about you meeting your objectives, and their assistance may be key at some point. Plus, you need to nourish your personal relationships simply for their own sake: there's more to life than your degree! Your psychological and even physical health may suffer if you don't maintain meaningful human contact.

Be Kind to Yourself

In some ways you have to accept your limitations. If you have certain physical restraints that limit the effort and time you can put into your academic studies, then once you hit a certain wall in your efforts, it's not fruitful to try to deny reality. If you consult and listen to your medical professionals, respect the frailties of your mind and body and take rest and treatment as required, you may do better than if you battle on regardless.

You can be kind to yourself with incentives and treats too. Whatever constitutes a treat for you – special meals, snacks, a chapter of your favourite supernatural fantasy book, downloading a free book off the Gutenberg Project – it can make your efforts worthwhile and enable you to work, bit by bit, through the steps necessary to keep your study schedule on track.

Enjoy Your Education!

If you have a dream of getting a degree and the nous to make use of all the resources that will help you reach that goal, then I think it's worth going for it. Don't let your condition hold you back, and enjoy the journey along the way!


1. Kock, R. 'The 80 20 Principle'. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

2. Tickle, L. 'Nightline celebrates 40 years of helping students'. The Guardian. 11/05/2010: Berliner.

Helpful Links On Depression and Chronic Illness

* A Chronic Dose | A blog about chronic illness, healthcare, and writing.

* Fighting the Darkness: My Secret Battle with Depression

* Major depressive disorder - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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