Finding Balance

Three Simple Rules: Balancing Work, School, and Life

When I got my college diploma five years ago, I decided to pursue graduate school immediately.

For starters – and, as with most things in life — I knew it’d be easier to continue going to school than to stop and start again. Plus, I honestly enjoyed going to class. I felt like my courses and, especially, my classmates opened my eyes to new ideas, new experiences.

So now, five years, a marriage, two dogs, three moves, and a couple of hiatuses later, I’ve come up with three tips I wish someone had shared when I started out.

  • Set aside (mostly) non-negotiable time for schoolwork.

This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but it works on a couple of levels.

First – and obviously – it assures you have the time and space to get schoolwork done. Let the people in your life – your husband, bestie, sister, happy-hour-obsessed coworker – know that you’re busy for whatever block of time you need to get work done.

For the past year, I’ve started to block off that time on Thursdays – the night my husband has plans with his friends, anyway — so I rarely run up against self-made excuses. Putting this non-negotiable time on my calendar is one of the most important tips I’d offer a grad student just starting out.

And, there’s a bonus: making this time helps prevent procrastination. Once everybody knows you’ll be off-the-books on, say, Thursday night, they’ll make plans for Wednesday. Or Friday. And, you won’t want to miss out on those tacos and margs, so you’ll feel more inclined – more motivated – to get your work done when you said you’d get it done. It’s a win-win.

  • Allow yourself to come up for air – by letting your schedule breathe.

In most programs (including one I pursued), there are both courses that you must take to fulfill the requirements of your degree, and courses you can take – kinda like graduate electives.

That’s where “class-supplied breathing room” comes in.

There were definitely moments over the past five years when I was bored. When I wanted to quit. When I couldn’t find the motivation to write another word for another paper – whether that paper was twenty pages, or it was five. When I didn’t want to register for another stinkin’ class.

So, when it came time to enroll for another term, I decided to pick something different. At one time or another, that meant different from the last term. If I’d just taken a course in professional writing, I’d switch it up and pick a course that would exercise my creative muscles instead.

Other times, letting my schedule breathe meant picking something I’d never learned before – even if I wasn’t sure it’d interest me. For example, I enrolled in a poetry class along the way, despite having little experience in, or knowledge of, poetry. I kinda sorta ended up loving it.

By mixing it up, you give yourself a chance to recharge – and, importantly, learn something new.

  • Celebrate milestones and key accomplishments.

Treat yoself.

I indulge – sometimes big (like a new pair of shoes), sometimes small (like a McFlurry) – after each term, or after completing a major paper. (Sometimes both – don’t judge.) These little treats give me just enough motivation to keep going – especially at times when that motivation is sorely lacking.

Perhaps even more critical to any grad school journey: I was kind to myself.

I wasn’t, at first: I thought I was the only person in the world who struggled balancing a full-time job and part-time school. But it’s no easy task: if it was, everyone would do it. So, I celebrated the fact that I was doing it, every week – with car karaoke, complete with all my guilty pleasures, on the way to class. I celebrated me throughout the process – and that made it that much more enjoyable.

When it comes to grad school, someone smart once told me: you get out what you put in. Yeah, you can “get through,” and earn your degree, without engaging outside the classroom, or without ever trying something new. Doing more than that requires more time, and more effort, on your part – both of which are sometimes in short supply.

But, ultimately, I think doing more – going above and beyond the basic requirements of a degree – is totally worth it. To get there, you just need to breathe – on a schedule, of course.

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