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Balancing Act: The Writing Life for Non-Traditional Students

January 8, 2018

As a writer, you have a unique opportunity— the ability to take control of your own schedule. This control comes in handy for those who write professionally but dream of one day obtaining a college degree or going onto postgraduate studies. If you want that higher education, then now is the time to start! The trick is learning to juggle your professional writing life, your family responsibilities, and the course load of your classes. Here are five tactics for keeping your life organized.


Tactic 1: Take Control of Your Class Schedule

You already know your peak work hours, so design your course load to complement your writing work instead of having college and work compete for your time. For example, if you tend to write best for a couple of hours first thing in the morning, take early afternoon classes. On the flip side, if late night is your peak period, then take late afternoon or evening classes.

Also, balance the types of classes you take. Has it been more than ten years since you were last on a university campus? Then the multitude of options available may overwhelm you at first. Schools generally provide three main course offerings: traditional classes on campus, online classes, and hybrid classes that integrate both traditional and online components. Many universities also offer evening and weekend classes.

Try signing up for at least one traditional or hybrid class in your schedule. I learned the hard way that staying motivated is hard when you take solely online classes. Associating with your peers on campus can build friendships and even future professional connections. Plus, sitting alone in front of a computer for both work and education can quickly lead to burn out.

Tactic 2: Integrate Your Planning

Planning is everything, but the methods that worked for managing your writing business may not be sufficient for both writing and school. Add in family time, and you may find yourself stretched thin!

A large wall or desk calendar paired with your preferred daily planner (be it a phone app, paper planner, or online calendar) is a sure-fire tactic to stay on task. Next, implement a coding system for both calendars. Color coding is best. Use a different color for each class, each family member, and for your work.

The wall calendar is your master planning tool. At the beginning of the semester, gather your class syllabi and write down every due date in the appropriate color. Then, fill in each family member’s important dates in their color. Finally, add each due date for your writing clients. Every new due date, event, appointment, etc., that comes up goes on the big calendar first. This way everyone in your household can refer to the calendar when scheduling things they need you present for. Your task going forward is to spend a few minutes daily updating your personal planner in reference to the household calendar.

A note on daily work: As a writer, you likely don’t have a set work schedule. Regardless, for every day you plan to work, write in your exact work hours for the day. By setting aside work blocks in advance, you protect the time you need for work from other commitments. I also use this technique to preschedule homework or study sessions.

Tactic 3: Overcome Distractions

Distractions can be the biggest enemy of a full schedule. Fortunately, there are tools you can use to overcome them.

The Pomodoro technique is not new, but it is a tried and true method. For this technique, you divide your work or study blocks into 20-, 30-, or 40-minute chunks. Set a timer and work. Nothing else is allowed! At the end of the chunk, set the timer again for 10 minutes. You can use this time to grab a snack, cruise Facebook, or some yoga— whatever makes you feel relaxed. Then, repeat the work block and follow it with another 10-minute break block.

Another tactic I personally use is the distraction notebook. Before I start any work for the day, I open it to a new page and date the top. When distractions pop into my head, I jot them down. Suddenly remember that you need to schedule a dentist appointment? Don’t stop your work to do it; jot down the reminder in your distraction notebook and get back to work. You can then run through the list or schedule things into your calendar at the end of the day or on a longer break.

Tactic 4: Set Goals

Goals ensure you succeed at both your career and educational pursuits. You can also use goals to bring your family together, particularly when your schedule is full.

Begin by choosing a weekly reward. It can be as simple as a board game night with the kids or a movie at the theater with your significant other. Involve the family in the reward so everyone benefits. Then, set a goal for each class, as well as one work goal. Class goals typically revolve around assignments or studying. Work goals could be something like hitting a word count for the week, finishing a certain amount of client work, or securing a specific amount of new work.

Once you have a week’s goals and rewards, recruit your family to keep you on task.  They are invested in your success because you set it up so everyone in the family can reap the reward! Setting goals put you on the path to achievement, and having a cheerleading squad gets you even closer to success. I know when I am tempted to put off homework, it helps to have my son remind me of the movie I promised him to get me back on task. It can be easy to let myself down, but I don’t want to let him down, too.

Tactic 5: Divide Your Space

Depending on your space, style, and where you are in your writing career, you may have a dedicated office, or you may be working from the corner of a room. When you add studies to your writing routine, then even a full room office can start to seem cramped and stifling. Consider dividing your space.

If your kitchen table is also your work desk, then plan to study somewhere else, such as in the living room. On the other hand, if you have a dedicated office space, consider adding a small writing desk or table for a second workstation, simply so you can change your view and mindset between work and school.

Also, don’t overlook the power of going out of the house. The great thing about both writing and studying is that you can do them anywhere as long as you have a computer and Wi-Fi! Go to a coffee shop, sit on your patio, visit the library, or rent space in a coworker office. You may even want to divide these spaces. For example, use the coffee shop near campus for homework and the café downtown for work.

You’ve Got This!

Your first semester will likely be the hardest as you find the strategies that work best for you. If possible, take a small course load at first. With trial and error, as well as incorporating the techniques above, you can keep writing, go to school, and spend time with family!

What are some ways you keep your life balanced? Let us know in the comments!

By Jenny Harrington

Jenny Harrington has been writing professionally since 2006. She attended the University of Colorado, where she studied anthropology and journalism. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she and her family tend a small city homestead, complete with ducks and bees.

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1 comment

  • Michelle Kulas

    January 9, 2018 at 7:02 am

    Great tips, Jenny! I’m also a full-time student this year and it’s been a bit of a learning curve trying to figure out how to balance studying with work. It’s all coming together now. I love the idea of having a “distractions” notebook. 🙂

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