The Adult Learner’s Guide to Balancing School, Work, and Life

As a working adult returning to college, you have responsibilities beyond coursework and grades. Here are our tips for balancing school, work, and life successfully.

As an adult learner, you have the advantage. For example, you’ve got valuable work, life, and educational experiences under your belt. This often means you’re more emotionally mature and can therefore take on challenges with more resilience. You’re also more likely to have clearer motivations for finishing your degree than traditional students.

But returning to college as a working adult may not always feel like it has its advantages. After all, you’re having to juggle competing responsibilities. It’s also normal to feel apprehensive about fitting in with younger students or learning new technology. So let’s explore how you can more effectively balance school, work, and life.


Figure out the right balance for you

Each part of your life should keep you engaged while leaving you with enough energy to pursue your other interests and commitments. Try this reflection exercise to determine what’s working for you and what needs rebalancing: On a piece of paper, write down categories such as Work, Health, Family, Finances, Social Life, and Me Time; you can use different categories as they matter to you. Then, rate each category on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very dissatisfied and 5 being very satisfied.

Not all of these areas will be a 5, and different categories will matter more at different times in life. But which areas seem solid? Which ones need work? Once you’ve determined the categories that need work, brainstorm small changes you can make each day, week, or month that will level out your fulfillment ratings.


Avoid perfectionism

It’s hard to not feel like you’re letting someone down when you’re not giving 100% to every area of your life. But when juggling competing priorities, progress and balance are key; perfection is unlikely if not impossible. In fact, trying to be everything to everybody often leads to disappointment, guilt, stress, anxiety, and even depression.

So remember that you’re human and have your limits. Set reasonable goals, and reflect frequently on how you’re feeling. And if you miss a deadline, flub a school or work assignment, or argue with a loved one, don’t beat yourself up! Own any mistakes, receive constructive feedback with grace, and learn and grow from the experience. Do the best you can when you can. 


Set and stick to a schedule

Time management is crucial when you’re returning to school as a working adult. You’ll need to create daily and weekly schedules—and then stick to them! Of course, you can’t control every part of your schedule, unfortunately. But the more you can plan ahead for your assignment and exam deadlines, your work schedule, and life in general (e.g., doctor’s appointments, meetings at your children’s schools, date nights, and downtime), the less stressed you’ll feel in tackling it all.


Communicate; don’t overcommit

As a working adult attending school, you’ll inevitably have to say no to avoid burnout and to achieve the goals you’ve prioritized.


Enroll in only the number of courses that you can truly juggle with work and family. Visit office hours to discuss deadlines or any academic challenges with your instructors. Chat with your boss to see whether there’s room for flexibility in your work commitments or schedule. And be sure to communicate with family and friends so that you get the time, space, and support you need to get things done.


Stay in the moment

When you’re attending an event at your child’s school or attending a meeting at work, do your thoughts sometimes drift to an upcoming test? When you’re studying, do you sometimes start thinking about a project at work or the cookies you need to make for a community bake sale?

Thinking about your other priorities during work, homework, or family time is inevitable. But try to stay focused on the event or task at hand. If you get distracted, pull your thoughts back to the present moment. Compartmentalizing will help you be more productive when it’s time to work or study. It’ll also make your downtime more enjoyable.


Reward yourself

Met a major work deadline? Passed an exam or earned a good grade on an essay? Finished helping your child with a science fair project? Got in a 30-minute walk four days this week? Reward yourself! You’ll improve your motivation and build positive habits if you give yourself a pat on the back each time you accomplish even small tasks in each area of your life.


Find your community

Reaching out to fellow adult learners in your classes can do wonders for blowing off steam and feeling a little less alone in all you’re trying to accomplish. Start a conversation with a classmate, or reach out to the academic or student life office at your college to learn whether there are groups on campus dedicated to adult learners. Talking with those who are going through a similar situation can also help you find other creative ways to achieve school–work–life balance!

Need more help with your balancing act?

ReUp Success Coaches are here to help you decide how to best balance school with work and life given your individual situation. Your support team is available by phone, text, or email. Ready to get started?