Going back to school as an adult opens doors and can even change your life. It shows your kids that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, and it gives you the chance to finally become the person you were always meant to be. If following your dreams were easy, though, everyone would do it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re deep in the trenches of balancing work, school, and family life. Whether you’re transitioning back to school for the first time or trying to rein in the chaos after semesters of hard work, these strategies can help you find balance—and maybe even some rest.
Set Reasonable Expectations—and Know This is Temporary
No one can do everything. When you add school to a busy life, you may need to put some things on the back burner. Have reasonable expectations. Your house might not be spotless every day. You may have to scale back on volunteer work or delegate planning the kids’ birthdays to someone else.
It’s hard to sacrifice the things you’ve always done, but worthwhile achievements require sacrifice. Remind yourself that this is temporary and that you’ll soon have more time to do all the things you love most.
Start with a Light Course Load
It’s tempting to plow full speed ahead, knocking out your degree as quickly as possible. If you already have a busy life, start slowly instead. Give yourself a semester or two to adapt to college life and see how well you manage your time. If things feel manageable, increase your course load next semester. Having to drop courses can be stressful and can make you feel like you’re falling behind before you’ve even started. So, it’s better to start with a light load and adjust as you move forward.
Be Realistic About Commute Times
If you’re commuting from work to school, it can be tough to manage your school schedule. That’s doubly true if a popular class is only available in one or two time slots. Be realistic about the time it takes to commute from work or home to school, and give yourself a significant cushion. Arriving to school or your job stressed after fighting traffic is no way to begin your day.
To further reduce stress and commute time, consider signing up for online courses. You’ll get the same quality instruction, but can take classes anywhere. No traffic required.
Get Help Wherever You Can
There’s no shame in asking for help. You don’t have to do it all by yourself, so take friends and family up on offers to help. Talk to your spouse about how to balance the household workload, and see if friends might be willing to occasionally watch the kids. The people who love you want to see you succeed. Lean on them, and then be prepared to help them when school is finished and they need a little extra support.
Remember Your Strengths
Returning to school can feel overwhelming. The technology is unfamiliar. You may have trouble making friends. You may feel woefully out-of-date and unprepared. Remember that you also bring many strengths to the table. You’ve already built a career or raised a family—the very things many of your younger peers are preparing to do. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, think about what you offer. This makes it easier to admit when you don’t know something or need a little help.
Get Family Buy-In
In a perfect world, your kids would cheerfully pitch in around the house and your spouse would congratulate you on taking this important step toward a better life. We don’t live in a perfect world. The people who love you want you to succeed, but they also have their own needs. They may worry about how your education will affect them. Younger kids might be scared about losing time with you, while older kids may feel resentful about doing more around the house. Your spouse may be eager to help, but also exhausted and overwhelmed by other responsibilities.
Try to see things from their perspective. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should quit. Instead, consider what your loved ones are most concerned about, then find ways to mitigate those concerns and get family buy-in. You might talk to your kids about how more education could one day mean they get their own rooms or help buying a car. Schedule regular check-ins with loved ones to talk about what each of you can do to better support one another.
Spend Some Time Doing Nothing
When you’re on the highway to a better life, productivity can become its own religion. You may feel obligated to always be in motion, especially if you worry that your education means you're neglecting your duties at home. But self-care means spending some time doing nothing. Plan some unplugged, unstructured time each week--even if it’s just a 20-minute walk in the woods with your kids. When you’re done with your homework and other responsibilities, commit to being fully present--not on the phone, not making to-do lists, and not thinking about work or school. This can help allay the fears your loved ones may have about losing you to your new life. It also gives you a chance to rest, and to remind yourself why you’re working so hard in the first place.
Remind Yourself of Your ‘Why’
What motivated you to go back to school in the first place? Was it the promise of a better job? The desire to fulfill a long-forgotten promise to yourself? A sudden trauma that reminded you of your true purpose? When you’re dealing with the daily grind and endless exhaustion of returning to school, it’s easy to forget why you went back. Find a way to connect yourself with this motivation every day. A photo on a mirror, a few mantras in a notebook, an inspiring note to yourself, or a song that connects you to your sense of longing for a better life can all remind you why you’re working so hard. Hard work pays off. Remind yourself of what the payoff might look like for you.
Look Into Employer Support Options
When employees get a better education, workplaces stand to benefit. Even if your education doesn’t seem directly related to your job, it might benefit your employer in surprising ways. The accountant pursuing a degree in social work, for example, might suddenly become more adept at managing office politics. So talk to your employer about your plans, and ask whether your company offers support options to people who return to school. Some common benefits include:
- Flextime to attend classes
- Reimbursement for course work that is directly relevant to your job
- Details about the promotions for which you might be eligible if you complete your training
- Options to practice new skills on the job, such as by taking on additional projects
Find a Scheduling System That Works
Time is the most valuable resource we have. When it’s gone, it’s gone for good, and there’s no way to earn more. Budget your time just like you budget your money. Spend some time each week looking at how much time you really have available, and then plan how to spend it. Don’t just make a to-do list. Map out a schedule for each day. The right planning system varies from person to person; experiment until you find the right one for your needs.
Get Clear About Job Prospects
There are lots of reasons to return to school, but almost everyone hopes their education will yield a better job or more pay. When you embark on your training, look into career options in your area so you have a clear understanding of what’s available. Get to know the folks in your school’s career services offices, too. They can connect you to local employers, internships, and apprenticeships that might open doors to a better job at graduation. The job hunt begins on day one. So start networking and find ways to make yourself a useful asset to people who might one day hire you.
Get to Know Other Adult Learners
Everyone needs friends. Adult learners understand the challenges you face, so make an effort to get to know them in class. They may have tried-and-true tips for making things work. Other adult learners are also a great option for forming flexible study groups that are sensitive to the real-world needs of real adults.
Don’t limit yourself to people in your classes, or even those who attend your school. Online support groups, professional networking organizations, and other large communities offer a wide range of tips and resources for people returning to school.
Transitioning back to school after a hiatus, like any other transition, can prove challenging. Give yourself time to adjust, and don’t be surprised if you occasionally question your decision. It’s normal to struggle with change. The changes that a new degree and better education offer are worth the struggle and will serve you well for the rest of your life. Keep your eye on the prize. It will be yours soon.