Earning a degree online can be a challenging, yet rewarding experience. While online degree programs are known for being flexible, a student must balance his or her professional and personal obligations with ample study time—easier said than done in this day and age. In order to reap the full value of your online program without compromising the other aspects of your life, it is wise to develop a comprehensive strategy for managing your time and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Use Milestones to Reach Your Goal
Starting an online degree program can be daunting, but managing one’s expectations and goals is the key to overcoming stress. Start by considering the big picture; identify your ultimate goal and use that to motivate yourself throughout your education. Now that you know where you’re going, and while that goal may seem overwhelming, you can alleviate your worries by setting a series of smaller goals and milestones to work towards in pursuit of the grand prize. As the old saying goes, “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Begin by taking note of your school’s deadlines for class registrations, financial aid applications and the academic deadlines specific to your program of study. Using these deadlines as benchmarks will not only reduce your stress by helping you break down your academic tasks into manageable sizes, but will also increase your chances of graduating on time.
Set a Schedule and Get Organized
Now that you have a framework of academic deadlines to keep you on track, it is wise to begin prioritizing your tasks and building a schedule. Staying organized is imperative throughout your education, especially since you are personally responsible for your own discipline and drive. Consider purchasing a physical calendar that you can mark up with deadlines in order to have a constant, visual reminder of assignments due, group discussion dates or office hours with professors and advisors.
Next, build yourself a weekly schedule—and stick to it. Identify the materials you will need for each task, as well as how much time you can anticipate spending on your academic work; compare these factors with your personal and professional obligations and schedule your study hours accordingly. You may find that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Consider waking up earlier to add more time to your schedule, as opposed to burning the midnight oil. Rising early, regardless of whether you use the morning hours for academic work, exercise or other tasks, will allow you to create a solid foundation for a productive day and can allow you to get a better night’s sleep, which is essential for managing stress and optimizing cognitive function.
Often times, small tasks can feel monumental in the context of your larger schedule, which can pave the way for countless distractions to take hold. However difficult it may be, you must avoid allowing the outside world to infiltrate your allotted academic time. Safeguard yourself against stalled progress by identifying what distracts you—be it social media, texting with loved ones or perusing your favorite websites—and developing the discipline to avoid those triggers. If you find yourself struggling with procrastination and time management, consider the Pomodoro Technique. Developed by software designer and author, Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique effectively reprograms your work habits in order to maximize efficiency. Per the method, individuals set a timer for 25 minutes and work uninterrupted for that entire interval, followed by a five-minute break. This repeats four times, culminating in a longer, 15-minute break.
In addition to altering your work habits, it is important to have a workspace that is consistent with your personal needs. You will want to ensure that you have access to high-speed internet, as well as any other materials (textbooks, software, etc.) you may require for your coursework. Figure out what conditions make you feel most creatively invigorated and academically stimulated, with respect to factors such as lighting, sound, furniture and ambiance. Create the space that will best empower you to tackle your academic tasks without loss of focus.
Of course, not all distractions are of the fun, low-stakes variety. Depending on the nature of your work and the associated hours, it is important not to let your many obligations steal time from one another. Remember that you are not expected to remain tethered to your phone. You will have an opportunity to answer work emails once your academic work has been addressed to your satisfaction. Similarly, it is a good idea to explain your goals and provide a copy of your schedule to friends and family so that they know not to contact you during your scheduled study hours. Multi-tasking is a surefire way to divide your focus and diminish the quality of all your efforts across the board, so be sure to set reasonable boundaries for yourself and the people in your life.
Speak Up and Check In
If you find yourself struggling to keep up with coursework, do not hesitate to reach out to the appropriate resources. Any online program worth its salt will offer academic support services, as well as access to professors and advisors; utilize these connections the first moment you realize your grasp is slipping. A proactive approach to staying on top of your assignments will allow you to mitigate an academic slump before it occurs. Make it a habit to “check in” daily—whether that means checking discussion boards each morning, reviewing your schedule or reaching out to an advisor or professor.
Even when you’re on top of assignments and producing excellent work, you may find yourself physically exhausted or emotionally overwhelmed at different points in your pursuit of a degree, and that’s perfectly understandable. The best thing you can do in these situations is lean on your homegrown support system of friends, family and co-workers. If you need the catharsis that comes with a good vent session, make time for coffee with a friend who will listen to your struggles and offer emotional support. Perhaps you find yourself up against a tight deadline or unforeseen complication, and you need a shift covered at work or a babysitter to look after the kids for a few hours. It is important to establish trusted connections who can help shoulder the load in times of adversity. Surround yourself with the emotional and academic support necessary to thrive.
You have crafted a comprehensive schedule, designed your optimal workspace and developed a laser-focused work habit. You are seemingly unstoppable and ready to take on any challenges in your path—so much so that you’re contemplating new side ventures. While it is important to celebrate your achievements and foster your self-confidence, certain sacrifices will be necessary in the short term in order to ensure your long-term success. Consider adopting that puppy once you have a diploma in hand, and remember that community theatre will still be there after you’ve tossed your cap in the air. While it is admirable to want to challenge yourself, it is crucial not to spread yourself so thin that all of your projects and obligations suffer as a result.
It’s easy to stow your personal habits, hobbies and desires in pursuit of your degree, but it’s another matter entirely when faced with the uncomfortable prospect of telling other people “no.” Difficult as it may be, you must develop the nerve to decline some social invitations and resist the guilt that comes with denying friends and family certain favors. Strike the appropriate balance; you may be able to pick up your sister’s dry cleaning on your way home from work, but you likely don’t have a month’s worth of weekends to devote to helping your neighbor build a shed. You have invested time and money in your education, and you must remember that you are well within your rights to protect that investment—your loved ones will support you no matter what.
Although rewarding, you may have realized that taking on an online degree will be difficult at times. As such, it is a great idea to build your own motivation for the inevitable hectic periods along your educational journey. You may rely on external sources such as friends and family for motivation during hard times, but it is also worthwhile to create your own incentive because you know best what fuels your passion and productivity. Consider the power of creative visualization; hang an empty frame on the wall to symbolize the spot where your diploma will eventually go, to remind you what you are working towards.
Alternatively, your incentive can take the form of a small reward—like treating yourself to a bowl of ice cream once you finish a paper or a regularly-scheduled block of “You Time” to help you avoid burnout, such as a nightly soak in the bathtub or relaxation with your favorite music. You are almost entirely responsible for setting the pace of your online learning and must find ways to keep it interesting and productive. It is essential to recognize your many achievements by practicing good self-care and establishing a personal rewards system that will allow you to stay happy, focused and motivated.
Online degree programs have made quality education available to a greater number of distance learners worldwide than ever before. While online learning continues to evolve, the success of each individual participant is a key factor for the viability of online learning as a whole. If and when you decide to earn your degree online, be sure to have a comprehensive strategy in place to ensure your success. Understand that though there will be challenges, overcoming them with careful planning, adaptability, organization and focus can lead to many fulfilling rewards.
As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.
At Norwich University, we extend a tradition of values-based education, where structured, disciplined, and rigorous studies create a challenging and rewarding experience. Our online programs have made our comprehensive curriculum available to more students than ever before.
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Work Life Balance in Online Education: How to Rescue Your Weekends, Wiley Education Services
The Pomodoro Technique, Francesco Cirillo
6 Time Management Tips for Online Students, Northeastern University
Work Life Balance is Doable with an Online Degree, Miami Herald
5 Ways to Maintain Work-Life Balance in Your Online MBA Program, The Princeton Review
Mastering Time Management as a Distance Learning Student, Distance Learning Portal
4 Time Management Tips for Online Students, U.S. News & World Report