7 Time Management Tips for Busy Professionals Going Back to School
7 Time Management Tips for Busy Professionals Going Back to School

You have a job (or maybe even two), which keeps you busy. You probably have relationships and personal responsibilities that demand time and attention. You might even have additional community commitments as well. Your plate is full.

So, how can you possibly fit going back to school into your schedule?

Whether you’re thinking about enrolling in one of our certificate programs, specializations or master’s degree programs, rest assured that it is possible to go back to school and not have your life fall apart. But it will require careful time management.

Here are some valuable tips from people who have managed to pull off similar demanding balancing acts and thrive as they pursue their academic and professional goals.

1. Prioritize Ruthlessly

An idea popularized by former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, “ruthless prioritization” means acknowledging that you have limits; there are only so many hours in a day. Given that, you prioritize what you need to get done and relentlessly focus on those things.

“Everything can’t be mission-critical — you need to choose and determine the highest-level use of your time,” says Katelyn Reilly, co-CEO of Steyer Content and the mother of an active six-year-old. “You have to decide what’s important and pick where you’ll put your energy.”

For Laura Fakhry, who completed several certificate programs at the University of Washington while working full-time, prioritizing meant keeping her goals front and center while balancing school and her career.

“I learned to keep my eye on the prize,” says Fakhry, who’d previously completed a master’s degree while working. “I knew I was in school to help me in my work or to get a better job. I wouldn’t worry about my test scores if it was a pass/fail program; I just focused on my goals.”

2. Block Out Your Time

calendar using time blocking

One time-management approach has become very popular among busy people in recent years: time blocking. Think of this as the opposite of multitasking, which many studies now find hurts your productivity.

With time blocking, you divide your day into large chunks of time in which you only focus on a specific task or group of tasks. You carefully choose and prioritize these tasks in advance — typically in a weekly planning session — so that you aren’t randomized by your inbox, text messages or the crisis du jour.

“I can’t underscore enough the importance of time blocking in managing my time,” says Corinne Stroum, who juggles her manager’s role at a California health care organization with parenting two young children and teaching in the UW Certificate in Health Care Analytics. “I block my calendar in advance when I need to work on something important: a business requirement, a presentation, lecture notes, etc. That way, I can focus on the deadline I need to meet. I am very deliberate in how I use my time; nothing is by happenstance.”

3. Work a Second Shift

Because school is a serious investment of your time, money and energy, approach it like a real job. This means planning to put in an additional shift on some days (or on the weekends).

“We call it ‘second shift’ at my house,” says Stroum, who recalls periods when she and her husband were both working and taking courses. “I unplug at the end of the workday, maybe take a walk, have dinner. Then I take on the mindset of, ‘it’s school time.’ I can often get more work done during this time because there are fewer distractions.”

“I think you have to be intentional in carving out time for school,” says Fakhry. “Sometimes it was tough to come home after work and open my laptop for class or studying. But it was important for me to keep my job and go to school at the same time.”

By planning her time well (see previous tip), including the “sacred time” she reserves every day for her family, Reilly says she doesn’t mind these extra work (or school) shifts.

“As long as I’m also getting that special time with my family, I’m fine working on evenings and weekends,” she notes. “I keep in mind that it’s in the service of higher aims — and people in school are certainly doing that too — and so it’s fine. I don’t worry about having to work on a Saturday.”

4. Have the Conversations

An important part of the decision to go back to school is talking to the people in your life about how it will impact your time and your relationship with them. This includes conversations with your loved ones, manager, coworkers and friends.

“The first thing I do is talk about my schedule with my family,” says Stroum. “When I commit myself to teaching or going to school, I'm committing my family to the impact of that choice.”

Stroum and others also say it’s a good idea to let your manager, and sometimes your coworkers, know when you are juggling work and school. That way, they can support you when and if things get busy with one or the other (or both).

“Especially if my work is reimbursing my education costs, I will notify my manager of the course and the timeline,” Stroum says. “I tell them I might seem a little more stressed for a few weeks or months. At the same time, I can bring what I’m learning or teaching back to my work team — I will offer to lead a lunch-and-learn session or drop some links in the team chat and say, ‘Let’s discuss this.’”

5. Let Some Things Go

If you’re adding school responsibilities to your already busy life, you’ll need to face reality: something will probably have to give (and it shouldn’t be sleep).

“At some point, I asked myself, ‘What tasks can I outsource? What can I drop?’” says Reilly, the co-CEO. “I’m a perfectionist, but I’ve learned I can’t keep a super-high bar in every single area.”

This means that your house might not be spotless (or you hire a cleaning service). You might watch less TV, do less cooking or have to drop out of your book club for the length of your program. And you have to keep your expectations at a realistic level.

“You’re just going to have to let go of some stuff,” says Fakhry. “You can’t read all the books; you’re not always going to be fully prepared for every class. And you have to be okay with that.”  

6. Get Efficient

If experts say that multitasking doesn’t work, what are some other ways you can make the best use of your time? For many busy people, it comes down to efficiency: don’t let time go to waste.

Stroum embodies this approach by using her “commute time” (she travels from Seattle to California regularly for work) as expediently as possible.

“When I’m on that plane, I can get through my entire inbox,” she says. “My team knows that when that plane lands, they’ll get like 40 emails from me because I’m using that time to respond to them. I don’t have anything to distract me.”

For Cosmina Bartels, who works full-time at Boeing and is also a master’s student in the UW Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics program, efficiency means preparing  for her busy week in advance.

“I plan my whole schedule for the week on Sunday. This includes work, school and even things like meal planning. I get all the ingredients ready ahead of time; that saves me an hour or two every day,” she says. “The same thing for my clothes — I plan all my outfits for the week at once, which saves me time every morning.”

7. Take Time for You

Decompression is critical. We’ve become such a back-to-back work culture, especially with virtual work, that we don’t build in breaks and time for reflection.

Corinne Stroum, instructor for the Certificate in Health Care Analytics
There’s one thing even the busiest, most productive people can agree on: you can’t always be working. You’ll burn out if you don’t have downtime built into your week.

“Decompression is critical,” says Stroum. “We’ve become such a back-to-back work culture, especially with virtual work, that we don’t build in breaks and time for reflection.”

Because she works remotely and no longer has a daily commute, Stroum sometimes schedules a virtual commute — 30 minutes at the end of her day where she can accomplish more fun, casual tasks.

“I used to have that time on the bus to get a lot done on my phone: social media, plan trips and make purchases,” she says. “I missed it, so now I just build that time into my schedule anyway.”

For Reilly, her decompression time is a three-hour block (minimum) that she gives herself every weekend to do things that allow her to rest and recover mentally.

“I use that time to do whatever I want that feeds me,” she says. “I’m listening to my audiobook, crocheting or just zoning out. And I can’t have my kid’s Minecraft videos blaring in the background. It’s pure me time.”

You Can  Do It

Ultimately, even though returning to school and maintaining your other commitments is a challenge, it is doable. Many have done it before you, and they survived. You will, too.

“I have this saying: if you want to do something badly enough, there's always time,” says Bartels, the master’s student. “No matter how busy your life is, you can find the time to make it happen.”

Learn More

Want to discover more helpful tips for balancing academics with the rest of your life commitments? Check out our collection of articles about going back to school.

For more career tips and industry trends, visit the News & Features section of our website, and subscribe to our email list. To learn more about UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, specializations, degrees and courses, explore your options or contact us.

Author David Hirning

David Hirning

David Hirning is an accomplished writer and editor with extensive experience in both tech and higher education. He began his career in journalism, then spent over a decade as an editor at Microsoft, where he worked on Encarta Encyclopedia and related reference products.

David worked for six years as a full-time writer and content manager at UW Professional & Continuing Education. He also operated his own editorial consulting business, with stints at leading companies like Amazon and Expedia, and taught English for two years in Costa Rica.

David has served as an instructor for the UW Certificate in Editing program and as a teaching assistant for the UW Certificate in Storytelling & Content Strategy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University and a Certificate in Literary Fiction from the UW.

View All Articles By This Author

  Get our email newsletter with career tips, event invites and upcoming program info.       Sign Up Now