I realized something this morning: it’s been exactly one year to the day since I was pacing around a hospital waiting room, biting my nails and wondering if my husband’s heart valve replacement surgery had been successful. All I wanted for Christmas last year was for him to be okay. In a season when I usually felt overwhelmed with shoulds—I should have been buying presents and sending holiday cards, I should have been decorating, I should have been volunteering, I should have been baking—I felt strangely free. For once, I knew exactly what was important, and it wasn’t deciding which cookies to bake for Santa.
While I wouldn’t wish the kind of stress that afforded me that clarity on anyone, I’m grateful to have learned some ways to find balance during the holidays. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or if your studies are starting to slip because there’s so much to do, read on! We’ve got plenty of motivation and tips to help you power through.
How to Prioritize Your Time
One of the most important things to do when there’s a lot on your plate is to set priorities. Deciding where to focus is critical to effective time management. The key to prioritizing family and school is finding a system that works for you. Some people enjoy making lists—there’s something satisfying about crossing things off, whether you do so electronically or with a pen and paper. If a force-ranked list is a good prioritizing tool for you, just make sure to put yours in a place where you’ll not only see it, but where you’ll also be in a position to do something about what’s on it. (For example, if I need to run some errands, I’ll put a post-it in my car so that I remember those errands when I’m already out and about.)
But maybe you’re not a list person. That’s okay! If you find it too hard to definitively order your tasks by importance, try grouping things into categories like “must have” versus “would be nice if.” Grouping, rather than listing things, also opens the door to some flexibility in terms of what you decide to work on. It helps to ask yourself some key questions as you go:
- Are there major consequences if a certain task doesn’t get done?
- What kind of impact does a particular task have? Personal? Professional? Financial?
And don’t forget to make sure you’re not miserable when you think about what has to get done.
- What tasks do you enjoy doing?
- Is there something you dislike doing that someone else might really have fun with?
That brings us straight to the next point—don’t be afraid to delegate!
There’s a saying that drives me a little bit crazy: “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” That’s a dangerous view to take. Not only will overextending yourself negatively impact your own health and productivity, but in trying to take everything on alone, you’re also not allowing others to demonstrate their competence. Assuming that others can’t help you often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: your family, friends, and co-workers will never be able to expand their responsibilities unless they have the opportunity to practice. And yes, when people practice, they often make mistakes. If the idea of people making mistakes scares you a bit, prioritize first and then delegate.
What’s at the bottom of your list, or in your “would be nice if” section? Can anyone else take a shot at those things? More importantly, is there anything on your list that someone else might really enjoy doing? Maybe your kids spend a lot of time online—ask them to send you some links to gifts other family members might like. Got an aspiring chef in the house? Have him or her help with planning menus, making grocery lists, and making treats. Busy at work? Bring a junior colleague or intern into a low-stakes project, and ask if he or she would be willing to contribute something. You might just be (pleasantly!) surprised at what others can do if you give them the chance.
How to Be Strategic With Your School Time
So, you’ve prioritized, you’ve delegated, and you’re still busy—we get it! Luckily, one of the biggest perks of taking a self-paced course is the flexibility. However, sometimes having too much flexibility makes it harder to figure out how to use the time you do have. To best structure your time, it helps to reflect on your own learning pace and preferences. How many pages are you able to read in 10 or 15 minutes? How long does it take you to answer a chapter’s review questions? Knowing the average pace at which you work can help you figure out how much time you’ll need to devote to lessons or courses.
Another thing to consider is the environment in which you work best. For example, can you tune out your surroundings and get work done on the train or in a doctor’s office, or do you need to sit down somewhere quiet and without any distractions? If you can do work on the go, make it easy for yourself to dive in whenever you have a few minutes by keeping your laptop or tablet with you, or by printing textbook pages or lesson slides. If you need quiet time, don’t be afraid to schedule it for yourself. For some people, working from home is a recipe for disaster. If that’s the case for you, then set up in a nearby coffee shop, or ask a friend if you can borrow their basement for an hour or two. The most important thing is to treat the time you schedule with yourself almost like a job interview—that is, you should go into your study time prepared, confident, punctual, and focused.
If you find yourself getting distracted by Facebook posts or Pinterest crafts, try an application like StayFocusd or Self Control to keep you honest. Finally, do your best to end your study sessions strong--five minutes before you need to stop, pull out a pen and piece of paper or start typing.
- What did you learn today?
- What questions to you have?
- What do you anticipate the next portion of the lesson will be about?
- Were there any slides you’d like to come back to later?
Wrapping up your own study session cohesively will help you review and jump right in the next time you’ve got a few minutes.
Take Time for Yourself
On airplanes, flight attendants always advise passengers to secure their own oxygen masks before helping anyone else. It makes sense--if you’re struggling to breathe, you won’t be able to help those around you! It’s important to apply this same logic to your life and particularly to your education. Getting a college degree is tough, and if you need to balance family commitments, you might feel selfish for prioritizing your education. Don’t. Your education is a gift not just for you, but also for those who depend on you.
Maybe you’re working towards a degree that’ll help you get a raise, promotion, or new job. Maybe your son’s been having a rough time in school, and you want to show him that it’s possible for him to earn his degree, too. Maybe you want to show your parents that the better life they wanted for you is finally within your grasp. Whatever your reason for pursuing your degree, it’s bound to have a positive impact on you and those around you. So don’t give up! Work some holiday magic of your own by getting one step closer to your diploma and your dreams.
About the Author: Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., has over ten years of university teaching, advising, and program management experience.