What You Really Need to Do Before the Semester Ends

Everything is on fire.

If you’re anything like me, the end of the semester is always a blur of meetings, holiday parties, and deadlines. I should treat that last month like a marathon, but I want it to be done so badly I run it like a sprint — then end up pulling all my leg muscles and limping into the new year, already a bit behind.

I’ll try to make that my only bad sports analogy — but after a few years on campus, it feels pretty relatable.

Our own stress is compounded by the stress in the air and water as students careen towards finals, so tensions across campus are high. So, as we balance finals programming, end of the semester reports, our own projects, and 2,302,391 meetings each day, it’s no wonder we’re freaking out a bit.


So, let’s stop for one second.

Take a step back and revisit our to-do lists, priorities, and what actually needs our undivided attention. Often, we get so caught up in the day-to-day, it can be difficult to step back and re-focus.

When we get so wrapped up in deadlines, to-do lists, and end of the semester busyness, it’s easy to let our work control us.

It’s sort of a vicious cycle, too: working just to get stuff done without ever pulling back to see where those little things fit into the bigger picture. By taking the beginning of your busiest month to hit the pause button, we get a chance to triage, delegate, and finish the semester strong.

The solution

Planning & time management

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that planning and time management were the solutions to all my stressors, I’d be retired by now.

And as much as I hate admitting that people other than me are right, they are.

Time management is an elusive end goal though, because what does that really look like? And how do you manage your time if you don’t even know how you’re spending it? Especially if you’re working on several big projects at once, using a tool like RescueTime can really help. You can set it up as a Chrome extension, and it’ll help track what you’re spending your time on. Now that you know, it’s all about making a plan to be more effective with your time!

In making that plan, be honest with yourself about how long tasks will really take. Humans are notorious for underestimating the length of time that tasks really take, so ask yourself again “will this really just take an hour this afternoon, or will it take the full afternoon?” and plan accordingly.

Triage your work

As you’re planning, also ask yourself, “What needs 100% of my focus right now, what can I delegate, and what can I push off until later?”

It’s like spring cleaning, but for your schedule — what can get donated, what do you bring to the garage sale, and what really is just trash that you’ve been hoarding for too long.

If you’re delegating to others, make sure your expectations are clear, both about the work that needs to get done and the timeline they have to work within.

If you’re keeping bigger projects for yourself that will take a month or longer, make sure you break it down into smaller goals and set yourself weekly check-in points and targets to hit.

Checklists, checklists, checklists

Once you’ve got all the work for later pushed out, the additional tasks delegated, and all of your primary focuses sorted out, make a checklist of what needs to get done each day.

Check-in on this list every evening before you leave the office and identify the top two things that need to get done the next morning, this way as soon as you get in, you have your focus and can get right to work. Don’t allow yourself to move onto other items on the list before those top two priorities are done. This will keep you from trying to multi-task, and instead getting nothing done.

If others come in with new tasks while you’re working on your top two priorities, communicate your priorities and current timeline.Just because someone else has deadlines to meet doesn’t mean yours are all of the sudden void.

Even something as simple as “I’m working on a high priority task right now, I’m aiming to get it done by 12:30, and I’ll add this project into the queue once I’m finished” can suffice.

It’s important to remember here that though saying “yes” to everything can feel like you’re helping out, the reality is that every time you say “yes” to something, you say “no” to something else. In this case, saying “yes” to someone else’s project is actually saying “no” to your current work. So use your best judgment and focus on your own work and lists first.

No meetings Monday

Especially towards the end of the semester when all of the students are gone, it feels like all of the meeting schedules ramp up.

To keep your busy season from being sucked away by meetings, establish one day (or at the very least, a half a day) where you don’t take any meetings. Communicate this to the folks on your team, and update your calendar so no one can request or add meetings to it that day.

It’s even more important on days without meetings to structure your time effectively. Download a “work timer” that will help you set specific work times, with a small break every hour or 90 minutes to build rhythms that’ll help you be the most productive. You can also use a website suspender to block specific sites during these days so you don’t spend the 30 minutes after lunch scrolling away on Facebook and Twitter (guilty).

Take a few tips from the students

The final month of the semester for student affairs professionals can often mirror finals week for the students.

Final reports are due, big project timelines ramp up, and the desire for time off can serve as a huge distraction from actual work. So, take the advice you give to your students during finals week:

  • Connect your bite-size to-dos with the big wins they’ll lead to down the line
  • Prepare early for big projects, and keep the momentum up with weekly or daily goals
  • Have a work buddy that you check-in with on a regular basis. This can also be a great person to share small wins with, allowing you both a small way to celebrate and stay motivated, and having someone to keep you accountable when you’re less than motivated
  • Identify your obstacles and plan around them — if you know certain days of finals week will have high numbers of student drop-in appointments, then schedule your weekly goal check-in a day before so you can free up your time to support students as they drop in.

Helpful hacks

This time of year, I’ll gladly take any distraction that comes my way, so I have to work extra hard to limit distractions from coming across my desk and my screen. Here’s some of the most helpful tips I have for doing so:


Throughout the year, I never realize how many emails I get from my favorite stores and services until it hits Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and suddenly I’m inundated with emails about sales.

Next thing I know, it’s two hours after lunch and I’ve got three new pairs of leggings, a new hoodie, and a new dog calendar for my sister.

Stop those emails from coming by using a tool like Unroll.Me that’ll auto-unsubscribe you from TONS of different emails and free you from additional distractions

Clean off your desk

Cleaning off your desk and clearing out your workspace is one of the best ways to clear your head and stay focused going into the end of the semester.

Take some time now to do a bit of “spring cleaning” before the spring semester starts: what can be filed away? What can be thrown away? What can be scanned & digitized? What’s in your office that actually doesn’t serve a purpose?

I recently removed everything from my desk but one pad of paper, two pens, a picture frame and some headphones and it’s been the best decision ever because now I come into work and just jump right in, and am able to stay focused the whole time.

That sort of minimalist vibe might not be for you, so find what is! Maybe it’s adding another storage bin under your desk to just get some of the stuff out of your line of sight, or perhaps it’s adding another picture or two to brighten the place up!

Prioritize self-care

As the days get shorter, it’s difficult to not feel like all you do is work because you might be getting in and leaving when it’s dark! Don’t let your self-care routine fall by the wayside just because it takes a bit more effort in the winter.

Keep up your early morning workouts (or even start a new workout routine, there’s no time like the present!) and focus on eating healthy. Especially going into the holidays, it’s easier to choose the path of least resistance and eat all of the sugar-laden foods that end up in the breakroom, or gifted to you by your favorite students. Between the mid-afternoon sugar slump and the mental fog, these treats often aren’t worth it day in and day out. So keep up your meal prep, bring in healthy snacks, and drink plenty of water to keep your brain firing on all cylinders.

Don’t over-caffeinate. This is always easier said than done when it’s cold outside, and you’re swamped, but limiting your intake will keep you from crashing mid-afternoon and will also give you the chance to drink more water!

Take a walk while the sun is out! With the days getting shorter, we see the sun a lot less during the winter months. So, take a 15-minute break in between meetings or at lunch and get a little vitamin D in. This is a great chance to catch up with your work buddy and discuss your recent wins, and perhaps treat yourself to a warm cup of herbal tea along the way.

Over to you

Take a deep breath in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Now one more. Do you feel better already? I do too.

Now use that mental clarity, and take the next 15-20 minutes to re-focus yourself. Walk through this checklist and get your priorities straight. Once you do, don’t stray from them. Be unapologetic in your quest to get your work done, and stay true to your own productivity and time management workflows.

With that, we wish you all of the luck heading into the end of the semester — let us know how we can support you through it!

Lindsay Murdock

About the author: Lindsay is a past Engagement Specialist at Presence. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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