In the fall of 2017, I began my grad school journey. Seven semesters later and a year to reflect leaves me still wondering how I did it all. Truthfully, it feels like a blur. My days consisted of: study, eat, work, study, sleep. Then I’d wash, rinse, and repeat. Looking back, before I was in the thick of it, I can remember excitement building before my “first day of school.” I was looking forward to this new chapter and it felt like an adventure filled with promise and endless possibilities. The reality though? Most weeks (especially early on) left me feeling depleted, unsure of myself, and with the sinking feeling of “what did I get myself into?”. It took me a solid year (about half-way through my program…better late than never right?) to find some footing and get into a rhythm. In hopes that it doesn’t take YOU quite as long to figure it out, here are some of my best practices; the things I’d wish I’d known starting out:
Set your alarm an hour (or more) earlier than usual. Early on, I would save school work for the end of the day and this often ended up being a HUGE waste of time. Because I was mentally exhausted from the work day, I’d end up re-reading the same paragraphs multiple times – or worse – not even retaining the information that I was reading. My mind would wander and I was extremely unfocused. Take it from me: I found that at the end of the day, my time was best spent either just reviewing notecards (and not learning new information) or resetting and resting so I could do it all again the next day…
Understandably, not everyone is an “early bird.” I am though. And if you are too, do yourself a favor and get up a little earlier than usual. I found that my mind was sharpest in the morning. Not only was I able to better retain the information that I was reading/studying, but this “ritual” (if you will), also led to better habits throughout the day (see next bullet point).
Small pockets of time add up in a major way. Early on, during the work-week, I didn’t think I could accomplish much in a 10-30 minute window. If I wasn’t able to dedicate a full hour to my studies, I didn’t even bother sitting down to try. WRONG. Take advantage of small pockets of time because they really DO add up in a major way. These little windows are a great opportunity to review notes, go through a study guide, or memorize flashcards. Here are some opportunities that I was able to find throughout the week days: during mealtimes – especially breakfast and lunch (I always took dinner “off” – for me, the evening meal was always a chance to fully unplug, reset, and recharge – find what works for you though!), while standing in line or waiting for appointments (don’t be afraid to whip out those notecards!), waiting at a red-light (please don’t study while actually driving though!), and finally – at the end of the day when you find any moment in-between tasks or when you don’t feel motivated to dedicate a large chunk of time to learning new material…set a timer for 30-minutes and just do what you can.
“Interval Studying”. The weekends are when I got the bulk of my work accomplished. I’d be lying if I didn’t warn you that I spent a good 8-hours on BOTH Saturday and Sunday reading textbooks, watching lectures, and finishing up assignments. Be prepared for this. Going to school part-time can feel like having another full-time job. I looked at Saturday + Sunday as my “marathon” days and treated them so. Instead of just powering through non-stop, I broke my day into hour chunks. What worked best for me was 45-minutes “on” and 15-minutes “off”. I’d study/work for 45 minutes and then take a 15-minute break. During my “off” time, I’d get up and move around, make a snack, do a quick yoga flow, call a friend, or complete a chore around the house. Really anything to rest the brain and supply a quick re-charge will work! Longer breaks for meal times worked well also and even leaving the house at the “half-way” point to go for a walk, run errands, or meet a friend for lunch. This always made the second half of the day flow much better and I’d come back with a renewed sense of motivation.
Understand that you’ll be saying “No” A LOT. It’s important that you really prioritize your time and know that your social life will look a little different. I’m not saying you won’t have a life at all, but you’ll have to choose wisely and only say YES to plans that work with your schedule and rearrange things so you don’t miss out on the most important events. Planning is key here because too many glasses of wine on a Friday night will leave you feeling less than motivated to do schoolwork all day Saturday -and- turning down Sunday brunch may be the make/break-it point to getting your weekly assignments in on time. Trust me, your friends and family WILL understand and if they don’t? Well, then they don’t have your best interest at heart. Being stingy with your YESSES will also make it THAT much more special when you are able to do something fun…and pro tip: when you’re out with friends + family, be PRESENT! Use this time to really focus on the people in front of you and nurturing your relationships. Don’t worry about school. Because if you did it right, you’re on track and shouldn’t feel guilty about spending your time elsewhere.
Delegate / Hire-Out Tasks. This was life changing for me. I severely underestimated how much time I was going to be able to devote to school. I thought…okay, there’s 24-hours in a day; I work for about 8 of them, sleep for 8 of them, so that leaves the other 8 for school! haha WRONG. I forgot to factor in the time it takes to get ready, to commute to and from work, to make meals, and the time I needed to just plain decompress from the day! Not to mention the weekend chores like grocery shopping, meal-prepping, mowing the yard, cleaning the house, laundry…the list goes on! Time is a precious resource and I needed to figure out how I could get more of it. Enter: delegation – or – hiring out tasks. I fully understand that the ability to do this was a financial privilege. I had to tweak my budget and figure out where my priorities were and then “hired out” the areas that made the most sense to me and my situation. Depending on your financial obligations, if you’re able to tweak your budget and eliminate even ONE task to free up more time (and mental space), you will reap the benefits. Promise.
Heres’s what I did: I hired a housekeeper to come in once a month to do a deep, thorough housecleaning; I ordered my groceries online and had them shipped to my door; I subscribed to a twice-monthly meal delivery service that gave me 12 refrigerator-to-microwave ready-to-eat meals; and I hired a local high-schooler to mow my yard. Not only did this free up my time, but it also freed up mental space and decreased the stress of having to figure out how to “do it all”.
REST. Can’t say this enough. Sleep and down-time is the most important commodity we have. It gives your mind a chance to digest the information and make room for more. Just like in exercise – we get stronger not when we do the actual exercise, but when our body has a chance to rest and repair the muscle. Your brain works the same way. We are best able to digest and retain information when our mind is clear. Besides actual sleep, find out what lights you up and gives you that ability to recharge. For me, I spent a lot of time hiking in the woods. There’s something about moving my body and being in nature that just feels so good to my spirit!
It’s only a crazy dream until you go out and do it.
I sincerely dedicate this post to all the young women out there “glowing up” through higher education and chasing their career dreams (especially you, Margaret!) I hope this helps set you up for success as you embark (or perhaps continue) on this next, exciting chapter of your life. If you have any of your OWN best-practices, I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments below.
AND, if you want to keep reading…check out this post – all about what I learned after my first semester of grad school…it’s not just academics 😉