20 Tips for Fitting School Into Your Busy Life
Take a fresh approach to managing your time and make room for the things that matter—including school.
Think you don’t have time for school? Think again.
There are 168 hours in a week—more than enough to focus on the activities that you value most.
Read on for timely tips on fitting school into your already-busy schedule.
1. Get clear on your long-term goal
Better job? Bigger salary? Better balance between work and life? Before you embark on the school journey, be clear about the outcome you’d like to achieve. The more clear and specific you can be, the more likely you are to achieve it.
2. Create a time diary
Where does the time go? Rushing from one activity to the next, it’s easy to lose sight of how we spend our days. And, as it turns out, the human brain isn’t a reliable tool for measuring the amount of time we devote to any given task.
Get a handle on your time by establishing a baseline. Take one week and track how you spend your 168 hours: commuting, cooking, playing with the kids, working, walking the dog, sleeping, everything. The results may surprise you. Many people find that the task they most dread (unloading the dishwasher, say) is taking up a lot of mental energy, but very little clock time.
3. Do a brain dump
To-do lists tend to stretch as time goes by, growing to include everything from dentist appointments to home maintenance. This mental clutter creates a drag on your psyche. Brett McKay, the man behind the Art of Manliness website, suggests that “…just as unused computer programs use up precious RAM and slow down your computer, so too do unfinished tasks use up willpower and slow down your brain.”
The antidote? McKay recommends getting the giant to-do list out of your head and onto paper (or into a digital option such as Evernote or OmniFocus or Things). You’ll free up acres of mental space when you corral your list into its own arena.
4. Use a calendar: paper or electronic
This is an essential tool to keep yourself on track. Whether you prefer pen and paper, or a digital option such as Google Calendar, iCalendar or Outlook, pick the one that works best for you.
5. Try some new tools
There are great online resources to help you find more time in your days. Check out the7minutelife for free downloads that run the gamut from defining your purpose to outlining your daily to-do list. Also helpful: the classic urgent/important grid, popularized by Steven Covey in his book, First Things First.
6. Schedule time to schedule your time
Once a week, carve out time to time to make a weekly game plan. Time management experts recommend doing this on a Friday or a Sunday, but choose whatever day works best for you. When you’re first starting out, plan to sit down for an hour and capture all the things that you need to accomplish in the coming week. As you get more fluent with this skill, it will flow more quickly.
7. Plan your week
What activities absolutely must get done in the coming week? Choose the most important things from amongst the many roles you play—student, parent, employee, homeowner, son or daughter. Which activities—such as exercise, date night, downtime—are crucial to your well-being? Remember to set aside time for relaxation and fun activities that keep you energized and feeling good.
8. Enter recurring appointments
Use your calendar to block out all the non-negotiable items in your week: class time, homework time, time to commute, work, sleep, prepare and clean up meals. Look back at your time log to estimate how long each activity will take. Treat these recurring appointments with the same respect you would a doctor’s appointment.
9. Make a daily plan
With your weekly plan in place, take time each evening to list the things you need to accomplish the following day. Consider this a living document, knowing that you’ll need to change and adjust it as the week progresses.
10. Limit your to-do list
The person with the longest to-do list doesn’t win. Time management gurus such as Laura Vanderkam and Allyson Lewis suggest restricting your list to three to five items. Why so short? Better to do three items well than to attempt a dozen half-way. By prioritizing, you’re more likely to have a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment at the end of the day, and start the next one re-charged.
11. Put a time limit on each task
A to-do list isn’t enough. Specify how many minutes you’ll devote to any given task, and stick with the time budget you create. Be firm about ending your tasks and appointments at the planned times
12. Track your time
The Internet is chock full of handy digital timers to keep you on task, from the simple e.ggtimer to the more sophisticated Toggl. Whether you use an analog clock or an app, get in the habit of tracking the time you spend on each assignment. Just seeing a ticking clock is often a strong motivator to focus your efforts.
13. Create buffers
When you’re scheduling school, work and home activities, leave 10 or 15 minutes in between each. Don’t expect yourself to move seamlessly from homework mode into dinner-prep mode. Buffers give you a bit of breathing space and can undermine that familiar feeling of running behind.
14. Give up perfectionism
Accept that it’s not possible to do everything, let alone do it perfectly. You can’t afford hours of fine-tuning and tinkering. When it comes to schoolwork, start where you are, do what you can, and ask for help when you need it.
15. Seek support
Make your education a family project. After all, the entire family will benefit once you’ve earned your degree and have moved into more satisfying work. To make school more manageable, ask for help with the tasks that generally fall to you. Can your spouse or partner take on more of the household chores? Can a friend or neighbor help with transporting the kids? How about a planned takeout night in lieu of cooking dinner once a week?
16. “No” is a complete sentence
“Value your time, and other people will do the same,” says Forbes.com contributor Frances Booth. Going back to school is the perfect opportunity to practice declining offers that distract you from your goals. Uncomfortable with a flat-out “no?” Try this phrase in the interim: “Let me think about that and get back to you.” You’ll buy yourself time to consider whether an invitation is in your best interest.
17. Do schoolwork on the go
Keep assignments with you and find small pockets of time throughout the day—waiting for the kids to finish practice, lunch break, between appointments—to work on projects. Don’t wait for large swaths of time to open up. They won’t.
18. Ditch the distractions
When you’re doing schoolwork, shut down all the applications and browser windows you don’t need. This includes all social media, instant messenger services, texts and other time wasters. Studies have proven that multi-tasking slows you down and makes you less effective.
19. Take conscious breaks
When you hit a milestone or a snag, do you automatically surf the Internet? Resist this habit and try a mental palate-cleanser instead: Stretch, take a quick walk, meditate. Want to go all out? Try the pomodoro technique, in which you work in timed 25-minute bursts followed by five-minute breaks (also timed).
20. Schedule free time
No matter how demanding your schedule, you’re not a robot. Don’t expect yourself to be productive or engaged at every moment of the day. Build in time to relax, recharge or do nothing at all.
Bottom line? With 168 hours in every week, you probably have more time than you realize. By taking a thoughtful approach to the activities you choose to pursue—and letting go of the non-essentials—you really can fit school into your busy life.
Sources: artofmanliness.com; the7minutelife.com; lauravanderkam.com; lifehacker.com; worklifebalance.com; bluesuitmom.com; janajasper.com; forbes.com; entrepreneur.com
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