help me avoid burnout!
August 20, 2008 11:55 PM   Subscribe

How to I keep my sanity while balancing school and a full-time job?

I'm about to begin a graduate program in counseling while simultaneously working full time in a different field. Leaving my job (or even reducing my hours) is simply not an option at the moment for financial reasons. So although I'm excited about the grad program and trust my decision to enroll in it, I'm also worried about how I'm going to balance it with the demands of my job. It doesn't help that a) my time management and general organizational skills could use some work; b) I'm over 40, so my energy levels aren't what they used to be; and c) there is no public transportation near the campus, so I'll be doing a lot of driving, most of it at night (when my classes are scheduled). Can any MeFites with experience leading this kind of double life suggest ways that I might do the following:

--manage my time/assignments efficiently
--enhance my energy levels and stamina
--keep up with other important tasks such as bill-paying, grocery shopping, meal preparation, etc.?

Thanks in advance for any and all suggestions.
posted by chicainthecity to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have anyone who can help you, like a partner or teenage kids because I'd recommend leaning on them a lot.

You're going to have to be superorganised and not slack off because getting sick will throw everything out. Plan out your menus, say 4 weeks worth and write shopping lists to go with them. I use a word document, in landscape with a 7 x 3 (7 days, 3 meals)table across the top for the menu, and then below, all the items you'll need for this. If you can cook triple at any one meal and freeze it, do so. It'll be really good to come home on some nights and just shove something in the microwave.

Automate your bill paying as much as possible with your bank. Otherwise, set Outlook (or equivalent) to remind you to pay bills. You should have a pretty good idea when they come in and when they're due. Store them all in the same place and when you get the reminder, jump online and pay (or write your cheques or whatever). If you're a cheque writer, you could probably prepare a bunch of envelopes and stamps so that for the next year, it's just slip the cheque in and go.

Cleaning doesn't matter anymore. Seriously. Dust and dirt won't kill you and you don't want any visitors anyway, I'm thinking, though if you're an extrovert, that might bother you. Maybe spend 15 minutes a day at the same time, whirling through the house doing a super quick tidy and one day a month catching up on everything.

Forget television. Forget fiction. And metafilter is evil from now on. Seriously. Use the internet only to research your topics.

I organise my classes by having ring binders for each class in different colours and at the start of semester noting when assignments are due (in the colour of the binder) in Outlook. I also set reminders for when I should be starting assignments, and so on.

With your quality of assignment, accept "good enough." You probably don't have the time for perfect and if you aim for it, and miss, you may miss a bunch of deadlines. Obviously you've studied before, but I'd suggest using a referencing system like Endnote to keep track of the resources for an assignment. You can put direct quotes in there, and notes, and keywords so that you can create a bibliography or reference list pretty easily just by sorting by COUNS1701 for example.

Try to plan for some exercise every day though I don't know where you're going to fit it in. Maybe you can walk on a your home treadmill and read your textbook at the same time.

good luck.
posted by b33j at 4:20 AM on August 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Some tips:
1. Make a full week's shopping list before you go to the grocery store, so you only have to go shopping once a week, and you don't find yourself getting in late with nothing in the cupboard. Sort the list so it's in aisle order, then you can march round the store quickly picking everything up and leave.
2. Make it a priority to eat properly and drink plenty of water. Find some recipes using stuff that's healthy but still quick to cook e.g. fish, cous cous, casseroles that cook themselves while you are out. Eat breakfast.
3. Find some way to pay your bills automatically by direct debit or whatever.
4. Actively schedule some downtime every week to do whatever you find relaxing - have a bath, watch the TV, go for a walk. You'll get unproductive pretty quickly if you are just working all the time.
posted by emilyw at 4:22 AM on August 21, 2008

- Make sure you have at least half a day off each week to lounge, watch TV, see a movie, go out to eat, etc. This will be CRUCIAL to recharging your batteries.
- Make meals in bulk and freeze the extra in individual portions.
- Use online billpay
- Get a large datebook and write your schedule AND your assignments in that.
posted by miss tea at 4:49 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing online bill-paying and making/freezing bulk meals.

A write-on/wipe-off monthly wall calendar is a great way to keep track of things because it's so visible.

Be sure and eat a balanced diet, take a multivitamin, and get plenty of sleep. Living off of caffeine and junk food will sap your energy, put you in a bad mood, and make you susceptible to whatever bug is going around. Drink plenty of water, too (not soda, WATER).

Set up a work/study area for yourself; keep all your syllabi, assignments, etc. for each class in separate folders, and keep your folders, books, back-up media, etc. on your desk or in a file cabinet so you know where everything is and there is no frantic last-minute hunt for books or papers. is a great resource for organization and housekeeping when you're crunched for time.

Keep your eyes on the prize - focus on the great things you will attain once you graduate, and the organizational and time-management skills you are learning now.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:11 AM on August 21, 2008

Record your lectures and listen to them in the car to minimize your study time at home. When it's time for projects/papers/assignments, use your commuting time to brainstorm and organize your ideas -- think out loud as you're driving and record it. And stick to a regular sleep schedule.
posted by headnsouth at 5:21 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Exercise and meditation.

For me, during the times in my life when I've been busiest (balancing school with work as a full-time journalist, as an example), I've found that it isn't simply enough to use your abilities most efficiently -- even if you have the ability to get everything done in the day that needs to be done, it'll be slowly demoralizing if you feel stressed and exhausted all the time.

Meditation and exercise both increase your capabilities, allowing you to tackle more difficulties in life, and also become great leisure activities that you might normally waste decompressing with some television. As an example, spend 30 minutes going on a jog each evening, and 15 minutes meditating each morning.

I was skeptical when I first thought about this routine. Extremely skeptical, even, to the point where I dismissed it for months. But when I finally did it, I found that almost immediately I felt in complete (or at least pretty damn reasonable) control of my life. You'll feel more lucid when you're awake and more rested upon waking, you'll be more creative and less forgetful, and stress won't get to you nearly as much.

At least, that's been my experience. It's pretty hard to measure the effects of exercise and meditation on anything but a person by person basis, but if it isn't doing much for you after three weeks, at least it's extremely easy to stop.
posted by Damn That Television at 6:00 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

On top of all the organizational ideas suggested, I'm seconding Damn's recommendation. It will help keep you sane.

Also, definitely do not skimp on sleep.
posted by canine epigram at 6:25 AM on August 21, 2008

These are all great suggestions. One other thing - you may at some point want to think about switching jobs to something counseling-related. For instance, working at a group home (where you have the added benefit of often being able to get shifts while the residents are sleeping. Of course, this may be impossible, but if you can swing it, your job mat turn from the 40-hour-a-week timesuck that keeps you in school but makes it difficult, to something that is challenging and still time-consuming but that reinforces and helps you understand what you're learning in the classroom.
posted by lunasol at 6:29 AM on August 21, 2008

Thirding Damn's suggestion. I'm in the same boat right now - attending grad school while maintaining a full time job. It can get crazy, but exercise and meditation saved my sanity!
posted by Nutritionista at 6:38 AM on August 21, 2008

Is your program designed for working adults? Or are most of the students going to be working part-time at most, with you the unusual full-timer? That makes a big difference in the expectations and scheduling side of things.

You need to be ready to embrace "good enough" and imperfection, and accept that a lot of things won't get done. Your work life will suffer, because you will have to say no to trips and meetings and assignments that conflict with your classes, and your classwork will suffer compared to someone who has those 40 hours free to do all the reading and think about the paper assignments.

Also, many grad programs have "optional" (that aren't really so optional) lecture series and seminars and special events that can be scheduled at any time. It's optional in that no one is going to directly dock your grades for not going — but it's mandatory in that the expectation is that a "serious" student would of course be there, so if you are skipping these things (because you are at work, or too busy with homework) then you will be seen as less engaged and less serious. It's not fair, but it's really common. Sort of like how not going out for drinks after work with your colleagues can be seen in all kinds of negative ways and hurt you professionally.

Lunasol's suggestion to find a way to switch your employment into something in the field you are studying is good — if nothing else, they will likely be much more supportive of your educational goals.

The advice to take care of your health is really key. Work and school full time means that you will always be on the edge of sleep deprivation, and the stress is really hard on your immune system. Getting sick at the wrong time can screw up an entire semester, as well as give you problems at work. You need to be totally on top of eating good food, getting enough exercise (especially stress-reducers like yoga), and whatever else works for you. If a lot of the other students are much younger than you, don't follow their eating and sleeping examples — their younger bodies can tolerate all-night beer fests followed by a nap on a couch and then lunch at the greasy spoon. Let them do it, but eat your fruit and vegies.
posted by Forktine at 6:57 AM on August 21, 2008

Q: What do you call a doctor with a C average?
A: Doctor

This is how I am getting through grad school with a busy schedule. You hardly hear anyone tell you to "just get by" but studying for 12 hours for a solid B or 20 for an A really makes a difference in your time. Putting priorties of one class over another can get you in trouble. Do everything as early as possible. Most grad classes I take have 3 grades: participation, a project, and a final paper. Start on it as soon as you get the assignment just in case something comes up. You want free time later in case of emergencies, not now when you could be doing work. I ALWAYS take the easy way out in assignments. Before you venture in to a project spend time asking yourself what is the easiest, quickest, most efficient way I can go about doing this. You might not have the best project/most interesting ideas but you will get it done.

I didn't believe it myself until I started exercising, but you will actually need less sleep and have more energy.

Buy the biggest dry erase board you can find and write out everything you need to do, that way it is staring you in the face and you will not be able to erase it until you have completed the task. (There is something very rewarding about physically crossing out or erasing a task)

This is extremely important for me: Work only at work. Study only at school. Sleep and eat only at home. Leisure anywhere but work, school, or home. Physically placing yourself in an environment will put you in a mindset of accomplishing the corresponding task at hand.

Get rid of all time wasting distractions like tv and the internet.
posted by comatose at 6:58 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Does your graduate program have any distance learning options at all? (Online live courses, in particular.) I'm assuming you're enrolling part time and not full time, too.

If your school has distance learning options, that can cut down the hustle quite a bit if there's a commute involved, although I know not everyone likes online classes. I've able to eat and participate in my night online courses freely, ignoring commute/parking issues, and that helped with my schedule.
posted by Ky at 7:08 AM on August 21, 2008

So many great ideas given to you already - I just want to emphasize exercising and sleeping. For so long I ignored any advice I heard about that, thinking it was more important to spend that time on my work. But within the past 3-6 months I've noticed that I feel SO much better when I go to power yoga 3+ times per week. I feel much more at peace with myself and the world because my body is getting what it needs, I guess. I am happier and more motivated, which means I have an easier time focusing and so I tend to work *better*, getting more done in a shorter amount of time. And so I feel less frustrated, more productive, and just happier and less stressed overall.

Sleep has the same effect, probably even moreso. If I only get 5-6 hours in a night, I can get through the next day, sure. But I'm in a poor mood and my brain is noticeably slower, and when I try to work on something that I'm not really excited about, I just procrastinate or stare at my book because my brain just is not operating very well and can't hold focus. I wind up getting very little done in a large amount of time. But when I get 8-9 hours of sleep I usually spend the day feeling good, like I am ready to take on the world, and when I sit down to work I am actually actively thinking and having ideas and really getting into whatever it is I'm focusing on, so it's not like I am forcing myself to stay focused; it just happens, and I'm much more productive as a result.

Anyway, sorry to write a book on that. :)
posted by inatizzy at 7:19 AM on August 21, 2008

I studied for the bar while working more than full time. I passed, so I hereby declare myself an expert.

First, and most importantly, you need to acknowledge a single fact--that you are a human being who has the mental powers to get through this tough time. Think about all of the crap, (attacked by lions, earthquakes, volcanos, etc.) our anscestors went through and they made it. So you have these powers to rely on to get it done. Acknowledging this and leaning on this fact is the most important thing you can do throughout the entire process.

Second, the next best thing you can do is set up a K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) system to keep things taken care of while you are so busy. Getting Things Done is a great book, but it is 3 pages of important stuff and 200 of filler. The only thing you need to take away from the book is one in-box, one filing system, one to-do list, and going through your in-box with the two minute rule.

One in-box is simple. All your bills, and other crap goes in one in-box before it is processed. Follow this rule as if your life depended on it. Go through your in-box once a day and process everything in it. One filing system is also important--you should have a single spot, organized simply, which has all of the stuff that you will have to do in the future. Never put anything anywhere else.

One to-do list is nearly as simple. Have a single to-do list with everything that you need to do on it. I suggest using Outlook or some other program. Don't be afraid to move the due dates around as things change--they always do. The key is to keep that list maintained every day, even if it takes out some time. There's nothing more wasteful than sitting around wondering what it is you should be doing.

Finally, the two minute rule--When you are going through your in-box, if an item can be handled within two minutes, say by shooting off a short e-mail message or something, then do it right then and there. But if it will take longer than 2 minutes, put it on the to-do list and put it into your single filing system.

As for keeping your energy levels up, I suggest two things--exercise and give yourself time. Exercise is self-explanatory. Giving yourself time means that you have to block out me time, even if it means putting some things off.

Good luck on the program Chica--I'm certain you are going to be a tremendous counselor!
posted by Ironmouth at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Bring snacks to class in the evening. There is nothing worse than sitting through class counting the minutes until it's over because you are starving and have low blood sugar. Protein bars, granola bars, grapes, carrot sticks, sandwiches all the do the trick for me.
posted by rglass at 9:49 AM on August 21, 2008

As for energy levels, in addition to exercise, mediation, staying hydrated, I'll tell you my special secret weapon when working two jobs. It's the difference between me falling over exhausted at 9 pm and being alert on my usual 7 hours of sleep.

A massage as often as you can afford it, at least monthly. If you can work it out with someone, I found 45 minutes every two weeks to be even more beneficial than the more typical 90 minutes every month. I used to have a place that was more of a physical therapy practice right down the street from my office (allowing me to go on my lunch hour!) that was nice because the cost was for the work, not fancy decor. (Not knocking the spa thing for luxuriating, it's just not the same focus as preventative healthcare/wellness practices.)
posted by desuetude at 9:52 AM on August 21, 2008

Here's the system that the most efficient classmate I had used -- she organized her entire life on her day-planner. Time is really your limited resource, so it makes sense. You get an assignment, figure out how long it's going to take, and block off those hours on the calendar. You then know, when you've sat down at the desk, "I have one hour now to draft it, then I send it to my teammates for their edits, then I have one hour on Tuesday to revise it. And that's it." This system means that when you take something on, it goes directly on the calendar, so you immediately see tradeoffs like, "if I agree to proofread my friend's paper, I won't have time to go grocery shopping." It helps handle perfectionism because you know can make it as perfect as you want to, in that one hour, but if you succumb to the desire to make it more perfect, you're forced to know what other activity you're canceling. It also reduces procrastination, since in calendar terms, procrastination means prioritizing useless tasks (eg, Metafilter) while postponing important tasks (eg, that assignment) such that you then end up double-scheduled for midnight to 2 am (that assignment and the other important appointment you have -- to sleep), such that you have to cancel the sleep.

I'll second automatic bill-pay.
Also, get a lot of soups and canned goods. This way, if the menu-planning system breaks down, you can still eat. (So many times during grad school, I ate whatever was in the cupboard, be it a can of chickpeas, rice with canned tomato sauce, frozen veggie burgers, whatever.)
posted by salvia at 9:54 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Q: What do you call a doctor with a C average?
A: Doctor

Seconding this.

But my main advice? Thoroughly assimilate the 80-20 rule (Pareto Principle) into your flesh & blood. I did a Masters degree after hours on top of 9-5 work & for each subject I'd make a decision within the first lecture or two as to whether it was worth my time showing up in person, or learning the stuff myself from the lecture notes, slides, other materials etc that I could get online. The decision depended on how much value the lecturer added to the notes & slides, but generally speaking, if you can get 80% of your knowledge in 20% of the time just by reading the stuff for yourself, you'd be crazy to spend 80% of your time chasing up the final 20% of learning, so long as you can still pass (or get good grades in) your exams.

The time & energy you save by skipping classes will be better spent on your assignments instead.

NB - if they take a roll each class, and have some kind of minimum attendance requirement, get yourself a copy of the course schedule & mark down the weekly topics that you're weakest on & make sure you show up for those, but aim to attend the minimum possible, skipping the stuff that you think is simplest or most obvious. For a futher hint, the very first class in any subject is almost always a total waste of time.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:27 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Q: What do you call a doctor with a C average?
A: Doctor

The way I always heard that joke was:

What do you call a medical student who graduated at the bottom of their class?


The point being, you aren't aiming for perfection in any aspect of your life. You are trying to get by — to not get fired at work (at least until right before you start your new job search), to not fail your classes, to not totally screw up your personal life. If you do better than that minimum, that's great, but the basic goal here is to manage the minimum at each step.
posted by Forktine at 6:45 AM on August 22, 2008

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