Using Technology to Balance Your Education and Life

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The world we live in has become increasingly complex. New choices abound for learning and, with traditional college students joined by a flood of veterans, recession-displaced workers, and others seeking answers in a slow job market, higher education still remains one of the most valuable things you can do to help secure a bright future. For those considering a return to college or even high school seniors on the fence about committing to pursuing a degree, one thing to consider is how you are going to balance that commitment with everything else you need to do in your life.

Hand holding the spheres of a life in the balance, education, family, career, friends

Weighing Your Commitments
Like many of you, I completed all of my graduate school education after I was married and working full-time. Sometimes this meant putting in well over 40 hours a week in retail management, while easily surpassing that number in class time, studying, and collaborative work with classmates. While I did not have the option of doing much of my coursework online, I did take a couple of classes via the Internet (and taught some as well) and can say that the flexibility that they offered is one significant way that technology can help those trying to juggle multiple commitments and their education. This post provides several additional ways in which technology can help you balance heavy commitments to work, family, and other activities, with the stress of completing a degree.

The first step in solving any problem is understanding it and gathering enough information to make an informed attempt at a solution. When talking about trying to balance the major commitments in life such as work, family, hobbies, and education, the dispassionate disposition of technology can actually be a great help in taking a more objective look at the factors involved. As the saying goes, the numbers don't lie.

For starters, you are going to want to create a master schedule of your current life to determine where your education can fit in with your current responsibilities. There are several time tracking options available to let you get a picture of your life. If you are already using something like Google Calendar, you may have much of the data you already need. Simply start using the calendar to keep track of all your daily commitments in one place for at least a week, though a month will give you a better picture. Track every minute of your day starting when you wake up, shower, eat breakfast, how long your drive to work is, the hours that you work, free time during your work day, driving home, cooking dinner, playing with the kids, and of course, any free time you have during all of that. The color coding feature of Google Calendar will allow you to see how your days, weeks, and months are divided up.

For those who want even more data (think charts and graphs), taking advantage of a free trial of a program like OfficeTime or Clockodo can allow minute time tracking and provide you with data presented in tables and graphs that may help you better visualize and quantify your priorities.

Once you have the data in front of you create a master diagram of your life in which you assign weights to your priorities. The weight that each responsibility in your life holds is up to you, but visualizing them in a diagram is one way to see what the actual importance is before deciding to adjust your priorities. If you have data in a tool like OfficeTime, you can access a chart or graph that visually represents your time spent in each type of activity. As another option you can visit a site like Online Chart Tool and use my personal favorite for visualizing relationships, the bubble chart, which you can also do in MS Excel. To determine how much time you will need to spend on your school work, you should consult your program guidelines, but two to three hours outside of class per hour in class is an absolute minimum.

Using Technology to Find and Maintain Balance
So you have charted your life for a while, adjusted your priorities to make sure your education can fit into your busy schedule, and you are now ready to begin with a couple of online classes, a full-blown degree program, or something in between. So how will you make sure that you are staying on track with all of the things you are now juggling? Fortunately technology can help with this as well.

  • Consider eLearning: For anyone considering higher education in the 21st Century eLearning should immediately come to mind. It fits the way the world works in so many ways that it is rapidly becoming a nearly essential experience for everyone. Online classes expose you to extremely valuable practice using advanced communication technology, force you to collaborate with others at a distance, and provide the kind of flexibility that is going to be key to maintaining the delicate balance of all the competing elements in your life. Online education allows you to work on your own schedule, in places that are convenient or comfortable to you, and usually to take only the number of courses you are comfortable with at one time. The OnlineUniversities website provides many resources to help with your pursuit of eLearning opportunities.
  • Get Organized: For anyone with a smart phone or other connected portable device, half the work is already done. For me, one of the most straight forward methods for connecting and organizing my life digitally is to use Google Calendar synched to my iOS device. Regardless of what system you choose to use, there are a few things to be aware of that will help make sure your calendar is consistent and up-to-date across all of your devices. Make sure that whatever the primary service you use – Google, iCloud, etc. – the calendar data is stored online and is accessible via the Internet from any device. Second, on whatever your device – iOS, Android, or Windows – make sure that you have told your calendar program to store data both locally and online and to periodically check the web service to refresh it. No matter how well connected you are, your calendar cannot keep your life scheduled without your help. Whenever an appointment request arrives in your email, you schedule an appointment in person, or receive course project due dates, add the information to your calendar immediately. 
  • Stay on Schedule: This is less about technology than about enforcing your priorities. For starters, if you are like me, it is more comfortable to be a "yes man" (or woman) who is amenable to whatever may intrude on your daily schedule. More important than any technology tool, you must learn to say "no" to people. While there will obviously be times when exceptions must be made, giving an inch of your allotted time for academics, family, work, or other priorities will inevitably lead to an ever-spiraling loss of time in all of those areas. One simple and effective way to stay on schedule and make saying "no" easier is to employ a digital to-do list. I personally use Wunderlist which allows me to schedule due dates and times for individual tasks and sends email reminders and push notifications when something is coming due. It also allows you to keep multiple lists and check off each item as you complete it. In this way you have a glaring reminder when something needs to be done and a readily available excuse for saying "no" when unforeseen requests arise.
  • Communicate More Effectively: In order to be a successful priority juggler you are not only going to need to communicate more effectively, but also more efficiently with the people in your life. Take email for instance. If you have automatic notifications turned on, or your portable device "pings" every time you've got mail, you are introducing dozens or possibly even hundreds of unnecessary distractions into your carefully balanced daily plan. For starters turn those notifications off and schedule time(s) in your day to check and respond to email. This could be 30 minutes every two hours, or whatever works with your schedule and priorities. In addition to turning off notifications you should always aim to be as clear and concise as possible in answering emails, and you should structure your messages to others so that any questions you have are clear and easily answered. Consider numbering your questions in a message if you have several so that the reader can quickly see them all and make sure that they answer each. Finally, avoid other distractions like Facebook updates, instant messages, or texts. Try the social media blocking apps suggested by Mashable to make sure the distractions are turned off.
  • Consider Every Possible Tool: One final suggestion for using technology to balance your life with your educational aspirations is to leave no hi-tech stone unturned. New apps and online productivity tools and resources are released literally every day. Set a weekly or monthly time to do a little Internet or app store searching for hot new tools that can help you get organized, stay on schedule, and communicate more effectively, or anything else that will make your balancing act easier. Share what you find with other students and invite them to share their secrets with you. Programs like Evernote or OneNote can allow you to take notes on just about anything, save them online or share them with others. Other tools for annotating or curating digital resources can speed up your studying, help with homework, or make you the star of team-based projects in school or the office. Remember though, you will never find these tools unless you look, download, and give a good effort at using them.

A Challenge Worth Facing
Balancing your life with your education presents many challenges, but also undeniable benefits. Among many such benefits, those with more education are healthier, live longer, are more recession-proof, and have a higher lifetime earning potential than those with less education. Those with a college education may also be better equipped to find careers that they enjoy, and can be extraordinarily valuable employees in a rapidly changing, global, information economy. The sacrifices in the short term might be significant, but technology can help ease the burden and maybe even speed up the process. The rewards definitely make it worth giving it a go.