Time Management for Online Learners

Feeling overwhelmed by all the demands on your time? Isn't it amazing that one of the reasons you chose to take an online course, or get your degree online, was to save time? However, now it seems what you lack more than anything is time to do it all.

As Cindy, who is a 47-year-old working mother with two adult children, ages 21 and 22, and getting her Ph.D. online, found out. "I used to think that online learning would take less time, but I have found that it takes more time because so much of it is self-directed."

Not to worry! This article will provide you with some proven time management techniques that hopefully will help you to get more done in less time.

Find Out What Is Expected of You from Each Professor/Course

I've been teaching at the college level since my early twenties, including an online introductory sociology course, and I know that the syllabus, a document provided at the start of a class that offers an overview of the course, is key. Read each syllabus thoroughly, familiarizing yourself with the expectations for each course.

Write Down Due Dates

Write down the key due dates from the syllabus in one or more additional places that you will refer to regularly. Check those dates before you agree to any work, social, or personal commitments that could conflict with your school demands.

Create Mini-Deadlines

Create your own "mini" due dates that will help you to better monitor your own progress. For example, if you have a term paper due by the 3rd week of class:

  • By what date will you pick your term paper topic?
  • How about having a date for finishing up the research for your paper?
  • The first draft?

Convince Yourself You Can Do It All

Instead of feeling overwhelmed, and wondering how you'll do it all, believe that you can do it all.

For example, Heather, a 28-year-old who is married and the mother of a two-year-old daughter, works more than fifty hours a week as an information technology professional. She is also currently taking online courses toward a master's degree in education. She's combining school, work, marriage, and raising a child.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help

However, few can do it alone. Heather, for instance, admits that her husband is a big help in the evening with their daughter Annie. She explains: "I rely on my husband a lot to watch Annie in the evenings so I can get classwork done. His support is very important."

Roz is going to school full time online in addition to raising 5 children who range in age from 3½ to 14, taking care of a disabled husband, and working full time as an administrative assistant.

As Roz notes: "I am fortunate enough to have enough downtime and a very understanding boss whom I have worked with for almost twelve years now that I am able to complete the majority of my class work while I am at work."

If you don't have a spouse to take over when you need to study, or an understanding boss who will let you do your readings on the job so you can have some uninterrupted study time, if you have dependent children, consider hiring a competent babysitter, or asking a trusted extended family member or friend for help.

There's also healthy take-out food you can bring home so you don't have to worry about what you'll prepare for dinner that night.

Prioritize Your Schoolwork

It's easier to prioritize if you become more comfortable saying "no" to everything that you don't have to do that takes you away from your necessary commitments and your schoolwork.

Learn to Say "No" Without Guilt

Like the other online students that she counsels, Jennifer has had to learn to say "no" when she's also taking online courses. Jennifer, 29, is married, working full time as an enrollment counselor for the University of Phoenix and getting an online degree in business administration. "I definitely haven't lost friends," says Jennifer, "but I don't go to dinner with couple friends as much."

You're Too Busy to Procrastinate

Putting off schoolwork till the last minute might describe a lot of students; don't be one of them. Some call that behavior procrastination; I call it self-sabotage.

It's self-sabotage because by doing something at the last minute you may not put forth your best effort since you failed to allow yourself enough time to read the required chapters, or to write and rewrite the necessary reports. You may also be decreasing the likelihood that you will get the excellent grades that you know you could and should be achieving if you weren't rushing (or turning projects in after the due date).

If you must procrastinate, do what I call creative procrastination in Creative Time Management for the New Millennium. Here's creative procrastination: Let's say you have to study for a history test and you keep putting it off.

Instead of going to the movies—feeling guilty the whole time because you really should be studying history—read over your notes from another class or make a dent in the research on your English term paper. Then go back to studying for the history test. You still get your history test studying done, as well as other necessary schoolwork, just in a different order.

Self-pacing Is Key

Studying for too long a period of time can wear you down, but not studying long enough can leave you ill-prepared. Take efficiency breaks every twenty minutes or so. It will replenish you so you can read, write, or study more.

Back Everything Up

Make sure you have backed up your work in multiple ways. If you use a computer, back up to an external disk, a CD-ROM, memory stick, or a second computer. Printing out hard copy may seem old-fashioned, but if you lose your electronic version of your work, with a hard copy you can always scan it or make another copy.

Getting Your Work Done in a Timely Fashion Has Other Rewards

Most of all, there is a calm that you will begin to feel as you become more focused and efficient, so you get more done in less time.

With greater efficiency and planning, you will be less tempted to skimp on sleep, instead getting the hours that you need to replenish so you can work, study, and enjoy your leisure time (however brief it might be) in an alert rather than an exhausted state.


Jan Yager, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, has taught at the University of Connecticut, Penn State, and The New School. A work and relationship expert, she is the author of numerous books including Creative Time Management for the New Millennium, which has been translated into Japanese, Russian, and Indonesian and co-author, with Michael J. Thorpy, M.D. of Sleeping Well.

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