education productivity

No-BS Tips for Working While Going Back to School

Spoiler: you don’t have to wake up at 4am

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on

Going to college is challenging even under the best circumstances. So is working 40 hours a week. If you work full-time, first of all — you’re doing great. Go team. You’re already kicking ass and taking names. If you’re working full-time and taking classes… my thoughts and prayers are with you.

I’m a full-time librarian, a computer science major, and, until last year, was a grad student getting my Masters in Library Science. I’ve been pursuing a degree in one form or another for the past five years — two years after getting my first degree. (Am I a glutton for punishment? Of course. A dork who thrives in academia? For sure. A workaholic powered by gold star stickers and coffee? Most definitely.)

Last semester, I failed a course for the first time. Aside from being deeply embarrassed (and overwhelmed by imposter syndrome), I realized I needed to re-evaluate the way I structured my semester — from the way I spent my free time, to the way I studied, to the way I viewed my career.

That’s why, this semester, I retook that programming course. This time, however, I took a different approach — one that has yielded almost all A’s, a healthier work-life balance, and even (just) enough sleep.
Here is my no-BS strategy for surviving (and thriving) as a full-time worker and a part-time student.

Learn your limits (and be realistic)

The meaning of taking classes “full-time” changes when you’re also working 40 hours a week. Normally, being a full-time student means taking anywhere from 12 to 18 credits. This equates roughly to upwards of 40 hours of schoolwork a week — in short, the same time commitment as a full-time job.

If you are wildly productive, and can balance multiple courses and a 40 hour work week, then more power to you. If your body thrives on no sleep, constant stress, and the workload of three over-caffeinated mid-level managers, then you’re good to go. You can stop reading now. Be free, you beautiful unicorn of productivity.

Non-unicorns still with me? Great. Thanks for hanging around.

Last semester, I wanted to get a jump start on my CS degree so badly that I enrolled in two classes. For some people, this would be fine. (Looking at you, productivity unicorns. What are you still doing here?)

For me, two classes was more than my time management skills could handle. I would work all day, then stay up into the wee hours of the night trying to finish my Precalc homework, only to start working on my programming homework after that. I would go to bed around 11pm or midnight, only to wake up at 6:30 the next morning and head to work. I was always exhausted, which didn’t help my productivity — either at work, or in my classes. It sucked. And, when I ended up failing one of those classes, I felt incredibly defeated. I’d put in all of that time and energy into a semester that didn’t count. I’d finally found my rock bottom.

Unfortunately, the best way to learn your limits is to stumble right over them. It’s okay to fail. The most important — and possibly the corniest — piece of advice I can give anyone in this situation is: keep going when you do.

Find a time management strategy that works for you — and make sure to take regular breaks

Studies show that taking breaks — no matter how short — can drastically improve your productivity. (Plus, it’s better for your mental health.)

Right now, my favorite time management tool is the Tomato Timer. It uses the Pomodoro time management technique — 25 minutes of work, then a short break (5–10 minutes).

If you’re like me, and have a hard time focusing for more than half an hour on any given task, the Pomodoro technique might be the right one for you.

If it’s not, here are a few other techniques that might work better:

The Pareto Analysis

(80 / 20 rule)

The time blocking technique

The Eisenhower Matrix

For a more thorough overview of time management techniques, check out the USAHS website, or this article by the Harvard Business Review.

Figure out how you learn best.

I learn best when I study in the morning. After some trial and error, I discovered that my mind is clearer when I tackle large tasks — assignments, tests, etc. — between 8 and 11am.

Unfortunately, sometimes, there’s no way to accommodate your learning style. For example: I work from 8 to 4pm five days a week. This means that I do most of my coursework after 5 pm. I tend to do most of my reading / lecture watching on the weekends, or late at night, after work.

Bottom line: if you can, figure out how you learn best, and incorporate that knowledge into how you plan your time. If you can’t, then I’d suggest using the MIT rule (below), if possible.

Use the MIT rule

“MIT” = Most Important Task first

The most important task is usually the hardest. The scariest. The one that haunts your dreams because of its importance. If you’re like me, you avoid this task like the plague, and procrastinate on it until you absolutely can’t anymore.

Right now, for example, I *should* be learning about Python dictionaries and finishing a programming lab that’s due tonight. I’m struggling with the topic, and every instinct I have is telling me to avoid looking at the chapter.
For those of us with imposter syndrome, the MIT rule is the hardest to follow. I’m terrified of failing again, but more importantly, I’m afraid that I just can’t understand it in time. What if I’m not meant to be a [insert career path here]?

Frankly — you and me? We do not have time for that fear of failure. We have limited hours in which to get this shit done. Use the MIT rule regularly enough, and it will, eventually, get easier to tackle those most challenging tasks first. (And I’ll be right back — I’m going to go finish that chapter on Python dictionaries.)

Plan ahead when you can; be kind to yourself when you can’t.

Shit happens. Sometimes, despite all of your careful planning and scheduling and MIT-ing, your boss needs you to work an extra shift, your car won’t start, your computer dies in the middle of an exam.

Please be kind to yourself. At the end of the day, you are getting your degree for yourself. If shit happens, keep going. (And if you can, treat yourself to another coffee — you’ve definitely earned it by now.)

By Ayla Yersel

Humanities nerd learning to code.