You’ve likely seen the circus act of a clown on a unicycle balancing spinning plates on skinny poles while pedaling around the arena. If you’ve decided to go back to school to earn your degree while working full-time, raising a family and having a life, you may feel like juggling those things is just as impossible. However, like with the clown on the unicycle, it’s all about balance. You can learn how with practice! Here are four best practices to help in the “juggle” of maintaining work-life balance.
Assess your Calendar
Online learning is attractive to working adults because of schedule flexibility and the independent nature of the courses. However, there’s no getting around the fact that it takes discipline to manage schoolwork.
Before starting online classes, or if you feel like you are drowning after enrolling, sit down with your calendar and walk through your weekly and monthly schedule. Be honest with yourself. First, identify the non-negotiable activities, apart from work, that are hard commitments of your time – things like kids’ ballgames or recitals, church, weekly date night, helping the kids with homework, or board meetings – whatever your priorities are. Put those on your calendar in red.
Next, make a list of activities that you regularly engage in but that are negotiable. These could be things like meeting the guys at the bar after work, watching your favorite shows for two hours each night, going to the lake on weekends, scrolling though Facebook, or working on a hobby. Put these on your calendar in another color, adding up the hours they take each week.
Finally, identify any chunks of time that are completely free and mark those on your calendar in green – again with an hour total. Two blocks of time that are easy to overlook are wait and break times. If you’re sitting in the car waiting for your son’s practice to finish, or you get an hour lunch but only use half of it, you can utilize that time to post class discussion responses from your phone or to read required materials.
This exercise will help you determine which activities you can give up and how much time you could wiggle out of your week for schoolwork. This will also help you determine how many courses you take each term. Once you have a visual calendar of your family, community and leisure activities, use your course syllabus to plug in all of your assignment deadlines and mark your study times in red as non-negotiable. If you’re not used to using a planner or calendar, you’ll soon discover its importance in staying on track in your online degree program and balancing work and school.
Employ a Support System
It’s easy to start your degree pursuit with the mindset that feeling overwhelmed will be your new normal. That doesn’t have to be the case. Managing schoolwork will be much easier if you preemptively put some things in place to smooth the way and help create the balance you’ll need for success in college.
A major component in developing a support network is communicating with the key people in your life that you are starting an online degree program. This could include your supervisors and co-workers, your family, your close friends, and any people who rely on you. For example, if you coach your daughter’s softball team, then it is wise to share with them why it is important for you to go back to school, as well as the time commitment it will take. Then ask for their support. Some employers are flexible with work schedules for those attending school and may be open to taking time off when you have a major assignment due. Friends will better understand when you can’t join the next party or if you have to ask for a fill-in coach on occasion. Family can commit to respecting your study times without interruption. Even friends can encourage you and help you stay accountable.
Another type of support is identifying things that can make your life easier to free up time. Could you hire a neighbor kid to mow the lawn? Could you order your groceries online and have them delivered? Could your friend watch the kids for three hours while you finish that research paper? Or could your spouse or teenage child make dinner once or twice a week? Be realistic about your responsibilities and let go of the ones that you can.
Your support network should also include your school’s professors and advisors. Be sure to ask for their help if you feel bogged down with an assignment, need to adjust your course schedule, or have any questions about your online learning experience. Rather than floundering in a course, make use of the tutoring services that most schools offer. Certainly, don’t forget the support you can get from your fellow students through discussion boards, social media, and even study groups.
Balance isn’t needed only in your environment and schedule. To manage college workloads with everything else going on in your life, it’s also extremely important to stay focused. That means when you’re with your family, you are totally present. While at work, you are focused on the job at hand. When you are studying, your mind isn’t wandering to an unfinished project at work. It’s easy to derail a study session when you are distracted. Unless you’re using your phone to complete or upload an assignment, you can help yourself in this area by putting your phone in another room so you can’t check texts, emails, or phone calls. You might also make a checklist for each session to help you focus on immediate tasks and check them off as you complete them.
Take Care of Yourself
Above all else, you should make a conscious effort to practice self-care. Putting your nose to the grindstone with no time built in for rest and recreation will undoubtedly lead to burnout. To ensure success in college, consider adding non-negotiable time slots to your calendar that give you a chance to do things you enjoy. These can be a combination of shorter weekly breaks and longer weekend or bi-weekly breaks. Take in a movie, go out to dinner, go fishing – whatever calms your mind and spirit. Even a cup of tea in the middle of a session can break up the intensity of your college workloads, and there is no substitute for a good night’s sleep!
While you will no doubt have to burn the midnight oil on occasion to complete your online degree program, it is possible to achieve work-life balance by budgeting your time, putting a support system in place, staying focused, and taking care for yourself. When you finally have your diploma in hand, your friends, family, and co-workers will stand back in amazement at how you kept all those plates spinning!
Read more about the wide variety of online degree programs offered by Ottawa University to help you further your career. If you like to know more about Ottawa University’s online degree programs, contact OU today!