Sixty percent of adults have considered returning to school, with 70 percent agreeing that higher education prepares adults for successful careers. While younger students often have the freedom to focus solely on school or to study while spending just a few hours a week at a part-time job, most older learners have other responsibilities. Balancing work and school can be difficult, whether your job is full-time parenting, challenging managerial work, or something completely unrelated to the degree you pursue.
There’s no magic key that unlocks the door to an easier balance, no recipe that ensures you won’t have to work hard. Exhaustion, stress, and self-doubt often affect adult students. Preparing yourself for these emotions can make them more manageable, supporting you on the path to greater student success. Here are some winning strategies for balancing work and school.
Understand the Challenges You May Face
Setting yourself up for greater student success begins before you set foot in the classroom. Spend some time thinking about the challenges you are most likely to face so you can get a plan in place for managing them. Some questions to ask yourself include:
- What support do I have? Is there anyone in my life who I anticipate will make the transition easier or harder?
- What sorts of stressors are most difficult for me to manage? Traffic? Fatigue? Feeling like I don’t fit in?
- What is most challenging about my job? What about school might intensify those challenges? What can I do to mitigate them?
- Which areas of my schedule feel the most constricted or frustrating?
- What makes me feel most relaxed and happy?
- What was school like for me the first time around? What did I find most difficult?
Tend to Your Physical Needs
When your body aches, your mind is overwhelmed by anxiety, or you’re so tired that you can’t think, it becomes impossible to succeed at work or school. Small challenges can feel daunting. You may become convinced that your life is impossible to manage, when really all that’s happening is that you’re tired.
Tending to your physical needs is critical to student success. Be sure to do the following:
- Make sleep a priority. It is not selfish to go to bed early or to ask your spouse to split early mornings with you.
- Stuff your work or school bag with healthy, nourishing snacks, such as protein-rich nuts, whole grain energy bars, tasty protein drinks, or dried fruit. Hunger makes everything feel worse.
- Take frequent walking and stretching breaks. Working while going to school almost always means spending a lot of time sitting at a desk. Headaches, neck pain, and eye fatigue make everything more painful. So take lots of breaks, and consider a yoga class or a daily exercise routine. Even if you can only squeeze in five minutes of exercise, do it.
Know That Negative Emotions Are Normal
Anything worth doing is challenging, otherwise, everyone would do it. Yet, you might not have spent much time thinking about the difficult aspects of returning to school—the fatigue, the frustration, the challenge of balancing work and school. You may also find that your frustration at work increases and your tolerance of annoying co-workers decreases. Don’t dismiss or ignore these emotions, and don’t feel guilty for having them. Negative emotions are a normal reaction to major transitions and challenges. Potent feelings sting less sharply when you anticipate them and view them as normal.
Find Ways to Relate Work and School to One Another
If you can find ways to make work and school work together, then you’ll save time and mental energy. Some questions that can help you make the two more compatible include:
- Are there classes I can take that directly relate to projects I’m tackling at work?
- Is there a new role or project at work that is relevant to my courses?
- Can I use the skills I’m mastering in school—such as public speaking or conflict management—to better manage something that challenges me at work?
Even when your degree and job seem totally unrelated, finding small connections is key. Doing so keeps you thinking productively about both work and school, and it can make your mind feel less crowded.
Accept Help—and Seek It Out
If you’re driven enough to return to school while working, you’re probably driven in other areas of your life too. Driven people sometimes struggle to ask for help. The truth is that the people who love you most want you to succeed. So accept the help they offer, however small, and ask for what you need. Even an extra hour a week can make a big difference in your emotional well-being. Some strategies for getting the help you need include:
- Work with friends to cooperatively care for one another’s kids. Can you watch the neighbor’s child for a few hours over the weekend in return for a ride to and from school for your kid?
- Understand that parenting is the job of both parents. If you’re used to being the primary caregiver to your kids, now is the time to ask your spouse or partner to step up. Be prepared to give them a little coaching at first.
- Get paid help if you need it. There are options even for a small budget. The 13-year-old neighbor might be able to watch your baby for a fair price while you take a shower or nap or do homework. Paid help is an investment in your future earnings and well-being.
- Relax your standards for things that don’t really matter. The toilet doesn't really have to sparkle. Your kids don’t have to wear matching outfits. Asking for help sometimes means letting another person do it their way. Be prepared to accept it if their standards aren’t quite as stringent as yours. As long as your kids are safe and loved, it’s OK.
Talk to Your Boss About Workplace Accommodations
Many employees worry about appearing less committed to their jobs when they return to school. Some even conceal their continuing education from their employers. An educated employee is a great asset, however, even when your education isn’t directly related to your field. Tell your boss of your plans ahead of time so you can answer any questions and address any concerns. Then ask about programs and accommodations your office offers to continuing learners. You may be able to get partial tuition reimbursement or negotiate a more flexible schedule that includes teleworking.
Choose a Schedule That Works with Your Life
Taking a single class at a time allows you to invest deeply in your own education, get to know your professor, and befriend other students. Even with just a single class a semester, however, some adult learners struggle. These time management strategies can help you better balance the competing demands you face:
- Avoid needless gaps in your schedule. If you drive 45 minutes from work to school and then have to spend another hour on campus waiting for classes to begin, that’s a lot of time you could have spent doing something else. Try to align your schedule such that you go straight from school to work or work to school.
- Know yourself. Do you do your best work in the afternoon? Are you exhausted in the evenings? Happiest in the mornings? Plan a schedule that works with your body’s natural fluctuations.
- Anticipate that everything will take longer than you expect. You might struggle with a specific class or have more homework than you hope. Work a cushion into your schedule.
- Try to carve out at least one day a week that’s relatively unscheduled. This may be your only chance to spend time with the kids, catch up on housework, and dive deeply into the topics you’re studying at school.
- Don’t underestimate the value of extracurricular activities. Advocacy groups, campus clubs, and online discussion groups can help you make career connections and better understand the material you’re tackling in class.
Budget Your Time
Your time is a valuable asset. Don’t waste it on things that don’t matter. Make a schedule that budgets your time just like you budget your money. Trim the fat—the wasteful phone calls, the errands you don’t really need to run, the time with “friends” you don’t really like. Zealously guard your time like the precious resource it is. Spend some time each week mindfully thinking about how you intend to spend the coming days, then envisioning your plan and writing (or typing) it down somewhere.
Everyone is tired of hearing about self-care. But you hear so much about it because it’s so important. Self-care means different things at different times. Sometimes it’s making a doctor’s appointment or a healthy meal. Sometimes it’s going for a walk with your dog or spending the afternoon playing with your kids. You are a complex being with many needs—physical, spiritual, psychological, intellectual, financial, and more. Self-care is about identifying unmet needs and then carving out time to address them. You can’t succeed if you don’t tend to your most valuable resource: yourself.