Going back to school is all the rage these days. In the wake of the recession, many are seeing the value of the college education they didn’t get earlier. The problem is, most non-traditional students don’t have the luxury of taking years off work so they can pursue that all-important degree. Balancing work, a private life, and school can seem overwhelming. The good news is that going back to school doesn’t have to cost your sanity! Here are eight ways to balance family, homework, and career and still achieve all your goals.
1. Lay the groundwork.
Many employers like to see their employees going back to school. It makes their workforce more educated and the employees themselves more valuable. Talk to your spouse and your kids and explain that you’ll be doing homework right alongside them. Then talk to your boss and discuss your degree ambitions and objectives. Be sure to have a rough plan for how long it will take and what scheduling accommodations you can reasonably foresee. This will put everyone on the same page and set clear expectations about what you’re willing to put in and what you need in return to make this work. Don’t forget to ask if your company has a tuition reimbursement program or other benefits that will make getting your degree easier.
2. Budget time wisely.
There are only 24 hours in a day, no matter how tough you are. Sit down and figure out how much time you absolutely must devote to school, work, and your family life to keep everything running smoothly. Remember that sometimes there will be family factors that need to take a higher precedence than your education or your job, and plan accordingly. While not a magic bullet, a lesson in time management will certainly make your life less chaotic and not leave anyone feeling short-changed.
3. How much is too much?
Trying to achieve a bachelor’s degree in two years is all well and good, but you have to be realistic about your other time demands. Most people find that 15 credit hours a semester is a manageable load, especially when work and family are factored in. Try as many classes as you dare for your first semester. If your grades suffer or your boss is constantly chewing you out because you missed something, or your kids are starting to forget what you look like, it’s time to reevaluate. Outdoing all the young Thundercats on your campus sounds like a great idea…but keep in mind that you have responsibilities they don’t. Dropping a class or two to enhance your GPA and keep the other elements of your life and mind in balance isn’t the worst thing you can do if you find yourself in over your head.
4. Know when to say “no.”
Many people are afraid to say no to anyone, whether it’s the guys from the office, the wife, the boss’s secretary, or the kid who’s looking for the new acting secretary of the student council. They’re afraid of looking weak, incapable, or like they aren’t superheroes. If you laid your groundwork appropriately at the start, you’ve already made it clear there are going to be times when you simply cannot please everyone. That urgent report on quarterly sales that must be ready to present at nine a.m., Timmy’s basketball game, Dr. No’s fifty-page paper on the mating habits of the common housefly that’s due tomorrow at noon, and your spouse’s sister’s roommate’s birthday party may well wind up hitting you all at once. In this case, which do you choose? It doesn’t make you a bad parent, employee, or student if you can’t be in all places at once. It just makes you human. Never be afraid to say, “I’m in over my head.” Then decide which one or two things are the most important, and stick to your decision. (You can always ask Dr. No for an extension on the paper, but based on his name, don’t hold your breath…)
5. Do what you say you’re going to do.
This may be the hardest of all of them. You may sit down to that German epic poem, intending to study it inside and out, but your inner three-year-old wants cookies, ice cream, and a long session in front of the X-Station or PlayBox. This is the moment when maturity and self-discipline have to take center stage, especially if you’re missing Susie’s play for it. Once you’ve worked out what your time commitments are, follow through on them.
6. Get your Zen on.
Sometimes there’s just too much going on at one time, particularly during midterms and finals. This is not automatically a bad thing. Stress can help us perform better and achieve more, but it has to be the right kind of stress. If you find yourself under too many kinds of negative stress, take a time-out. Watch a movie, meditate, indulge in one of your hobbies for a little while, or see if you can coax your spouse or significant other into a nice, relaxing romp in the bedroom. (Or the kitchen, or the living room…whatever works.) Once you feel a little less stressed, then get back to whichever variant(s) of work you have on your plate. You’ll be a lot more efficient when your mind and body are both calm and relaxed.
7. Get plenty of rest.
Our modern culture is full of slogans like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “Downtime is for the weak.” And it shows: scientific studies link sleep deprivation to every malady from diabetes to mental illness! It’s just not healthy not to take some downtime, and you won’t recall as much or as accurately if you try to “cram” as you will if you take a more measured approach to your studies.Numerous studies show that distributed practice (many shorter study sessions separated by periods of rest) result in better learning and performance than the famed all-nighter. While the desire to be all things to all people is commendable in one direction, ask yourself how much your degree will mean to you and your family if it’s awarded posthumously…and get as much sleep as you can.
8. Remember to schedule recreation.
This is listed last, but should not be taken as an afterthought. Our culture is all about productivity and connectedness, leaving us feeling like a pariah if we take a day away from the Internet or the cell phone, or God forbid, the books! But rest isn’t just about sleep; it’s about relaxing and getting out of the grind for a while. Why not take the family on a hike, or go visit those friends who are almost certain you died or relocated to a foreign country because they haven’t seen you since sometime in the Pleistocene epoch? Sharing some laughter, good food, and maybe even a beer or two is a good way to lower your stress level and get yourself back on track. There’s a reason we call it “rest and recreation;” your body and mind need both. Your grades, the quality of your work, your health, and your relationship with your family will all benefit from it!
Bonus Tip: Don’t forget that your grades don’t define you, and your family will be just as proud of you with Cs as they will be if you’re pulling down As. At the end of the day, your family and friends are the ones who really matter.