If you are one of the 6 million plus Americans using online learning to advance their careers, then you already know it can be a bit of a balancing act. This article offers 15 tips to help you make the most of your limited time to succeed with your online education while working full time at your day job.
#1: Have a Conversation with Your Employer
It is important to give your employer a heads up that you plan to pursue an online education. It is best to bring this up with your supervisor after you have a clear plan and have identified the program or courses that you will be enrolling in. Prepare for that conversation by thinking through your strategies for how you will balance both work and your online education.
Chances are your employer is going to appreciate your initiative to advance your skills and knowledge base. And, if the courses are relevant to your job, there may even be some financial assistance available through your employer’s human resource department.
#2: Budget Wisely
In addition to the costs of tuition and fees, you will also be required to pay for books and possibly for special software. In some cases, these costs can even match the tuition and fees. Build your budget with some slack in it so these unforeseen costs will not be a source of additional stress and strain.
Other additional costs associated with going back to school can include additional childcare, eating out more often, and other hard to predict costs of being strapped for time. Be sure your budget has enough wiggle room to account for these additional conveniences that can translate into the extra study time you need to succeed.
#3: Develop a Solid Schedule System
If you are comfortable using online scheduling apps then you are in luck. There are some great options available (both free and paid) to help you keep track of tasks and deadlines or schedule blocks of time for studying and other activities.
However, if you are less tech savvy, even a paper monthly day planner can really help you map out your activities and keep you on track with your time. When you are balancing work and online learning, a solid scheduling system is an absolute must.
“Winging it” while going to school while working just won’t work. You will find you are constantly double booked and having to choose between work, family, and school obligations. Get organized before your classes start by practicing with whichever schedule system works best for you and make it a habit.
#4: Commit Yourself to a Schedule
There is no one-size fits all schedule that is going to work for everyone. It is important that you develop a schedule that works within the parameters of your lifestyle.
Be ready to shift your schedule as you learn what works best for you. For example, if you notice you don’t have the mental focus to study in the evening, you may find bumping your morning work out for study time (and getting your exercise in the evenings) solves a major problem for you.
#5: Use Vacation Time Wisely
While you are setting up your schedule for the semester, pay particular attention to due dates for large projects as well as major exams. Consider working with your employer well in advance of these major deadlines to schedule your upcoming vacation days in ways that will support your online education.
#6: Choose Asynchronous Courses When Possible
There are two main types of online courses and it is important to know the difference before you sign up. Synchronous courses require all students to meet up, usually via an online conferencing or classroom tool, at a specific time. Often these classes meet a few times a week and your attendance is mandatory.
On the other hand, asynchronous classes do not require you to meet with the rest of the class at a specific time. This gives you a ton of flexibility to study and take online quizzes and exams during times that work for you.
In most cases, for people that are working and attending online classes, the asynchronous option is better in terms of giving you the most flexibility in your schedule. However, it may not always be available. If you do have to take synchronous courses, look to balance them with asynchronous ones each semester to make sure you preserve as much flexibility in your schedule as possible.
#7: Create a Distraction Free Study Space
If you are trying to work full time and take online classes, having a dedicated and distraction free study space is key. Make sure your family is prepared to support you in your goals by respecting that your study space should not be disturbed. Other tips for a well-designed study space include good lighting, comfortable seating, and access to your computer. Consider leaving your phone out of your study space to eliminate that distraction as well.
#8: Post Your Ultimate Goal Prominently in Your Study Space
Staying motivated to complete your online education while you are also working is critical for success. Take some time to write down your ultimate goals or some positive affirmations to post in your study area. When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, pause for a moment and look to these aids. Visualize yourself succeeding and then get back to studying.
#9: Make the Most of Small Pockets of Downtime
Most of us have small pockets of downtime between other scheduled activities that we can take advantage of to squeeze some study time in. Being prepared to make the most of these moments is the key to making the best use of them.
For example, you may use notecards to help you memorize key facts or formulas for some of your classes. If you always have them in your pocket or purse, then you can put that 20 minutes in the waiting room at your dentist’s office to good use!
#10: Block in Scheduled Social Time and Self-Care
While it is easy to be very task oriented while trying to succeed with online learning as a working adult, the ability to maintain strong mental health is very important as well. If you don’t schedule time to let your mind rest, you won’t have the focus you need to make the most of the time you have set aside for studying.
Spending quality time with those you love and making time to do things you enjoy produces the kinds of positive neurochemicals such as dopamine and serotonin that help us to feel good, boosting productivity in the long run. Without these kinds of activities, it is only a matter of time before the stress and pressure of working and studying will lead to burn out, mental fatigue, and lack of focus.
#11: Take Care of Your Body
Regular exercise and a balanced healthy diet also contribute to your chances of success at online learning. The mind and body are deeply connected. Exercise helps to prevent the buildup of the hormones caused by stress, such as cortisol, which can increase anxiety which leads to a lack of focus.
#12: Spend Some Time Researching Good Study Habits
Good study habits will make a major impact on your success with online learning. Take the time to learn which study methods work best for you and you will find that you get a lot more bang for your buck out of the time you spend studying. Even a small gain in efficiency when you study can translate into large gains of time over the course of a semester.
If it has been a while since you have been in school, it is also a good idea to research some test taking strategies. Keep in mind that most online learning uses exam models based on multiple choice, short answer, and matching. Being skilled in taking these kinds of tests under time pressure can make a big difference.
#13: Balance Easy and Challenging Courses
Before choosing your classes for each semester, take the time to get honest with yourself about which classes are likely to present the biggest challenge. For example, if math classes are likely to cause you a great deal of stress and extra study time, then make sure to balance them with courses that you are going to find less challenging.
#14: Celebrate the Small Victories
Celebrating small victories is a habit that most successful people have. If you don’t give yourself permission to sit back and reward yourself for the little things, then burn out and fatigue can creep in to undermine your progress.
For example, consider spending five minutes at the end of the day to go over your planner and check off all of your accomplishments for that day. Pat yourself on the back and reward yourself with something enjoyable such as a hot bath, your favorite tv show, or a cup of tea while you enjoy a sunset.
Acknowledging your accomplishments on a daily basis helps you focus on the positive and keeps you from getting overwhelmed by all the things that still need doing.
#15: Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out for Help
Finally, make sure that you seek out help as soon as you realize that you need it. This might mean asking family for extra support, talking with your instructor about an upcoming project, or making use of online resources such as tutors or the writing center at your college.
The longer you wait to get the help you need, the worse the problem will get. Identifying that you need some help and being willing to ask for it is critical to succeeding at online education while you are working.