1. Sherrod, Dennis C. EdD, MSN, BSN

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Whether you're currently completing an educational program or plan to return to school soon, it's helpful to know that a number of skills you currently use in your role can assist you to successfully integrate educational priorities into your work and family responsibilities. Planning, negotiating, scheduling, prioritizing, organizing, and triaging are skills nurses use every day, and these can readily be applied to educational settings. Recognizing your passion for learning and identifying your personal and professional reasons for returning to school provide driving forces for achieving your educational goals.

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Plan ahead

The majority of us aren't able to quit work to return to school. Therefore, you'll need to identify a program that's accessible and meets your educational goals. Whether you select an online or traditional program, you'll need to begin reviewing schools at least 1 year before you'd like to begin course work. A great place to begin your review is at your state board of nursing website to identify nursing programs in your state or conduct a national "nursing program search" at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing's website.1 You can also conduct an Internet search for your specific program of interest.


After you've identified possible programs, review and compare university missions, admission requirements, course requirements, and costs. When you've narrowed your search, consult with colleagues who attended or are attending your program of interest. After you've decided to which program you'll apply, identify the application deadline date and plan to complete application materials at least 6 months before the deadline.


Consider how educational program requirements of time and other resources will influence your lifestyle. A good rule of thumb is to expect 2 to 3 hours of course work weekly for each course credit hour. Some courses are more time-intensive and some are less, but generally a 3-credit course may require 6 to 9 hours of reading and assignments beyond class attendance. Although typical online courses don't usually meet in person, time requirements to complete course work are similar. Most programs offer full- and part-time options and you're asked to select one of the options when you apply.



Meet with your administrator to negotiate how your organization will support your decision to return to school. Discuss the benefits that your educational preparation will provide, as well as flexibility in your current role or the possibility of other work assignments or scheduling options that may be available if time demands for the program are greater than expected. If you're half way through a semester and you decide you need to rearrange work responsibilities, it's helpful to already have had the conversation with your employer.


Streamline your involvement in other activities. Review your participation in social organizations and develop strategies that can reduce participation and time demands to allow you to focus your energies on completing educational requirements. If an activity drains your energy, stop it. If participation charges your battery, continue it. You'll want to continue your membership in nursing organizations, but you should let leadership know you'll be less active for the next few years.


Convene a family meeting to share your educational goals and discuss the implications. Identify strategies and expectations, and encourage family members to demonstrate their support. For example, if you have a child involved in a sport, you might inform him or her that you'll need a copy of the game schedule by a certain date to make sure transportation is provided. Planning establishes the foundation for your educational journey. Give serious thought to time availability and choose options that assist you to achieve your educational goal and best fit your life circumstances.



Before registering for courses, talk with current students and your academic advisor to identify the most demanding courses in the curriculum. As you develop your plan of study, space those courses out if possible. For example, if three courses are identified as more demanding, take one of them per semester rather than taking all three courses at the same time. Most curricula require prerequisite courses to be completed before moving on to other courses, so you may not always have a choice of when you can take each course. But when you do, choose wisely.


Whether you prefer an electronic monthly calendar, paper weekly calendar, or daily planner, develop a scheduling system that works for you. Most likely, you're scheduling school, work, and family activities. When you receive course syllabi at the beginning of the semester, write all test and homework deadlines on your schedule. Include your workdays as well and remember to allow for recuperation time. For example, if you work weekend nights, you'll need to plan for Mondays as rest time.


Include times dedicated for study and completion of course work. You might use highlighter colors to indicate school, work, and family activities, which can be helpful if you need to quickly make scheduling adjustments. Include family time, as well as time for personal exercise, relaxation, sleep, and socialization.



Develop a to-do list each day. Place the most important tasks at the top of your list. If additional resources are needed to accomplish some tasks, acquire those resources in advance. For example, if an assignment requires two evidence-based articles as references, conduct a quick search of the online library and place the articles in your assignment file so they're available when you're ready to complete the assignment.


Learn to say "no." If a request isn't on your to-do list and isn't a priority, inform the individual that you aren't able to add the task to your schedule. If you find yourself being nonproductive or wasting time, review your to-do list. If you're an avid social media fan, limit your time on Facebook or Twitter. A 15-minute session on social media can easily result in 1 to 2 hours of nonproductive Internet exploration.


If you complete your to-do list early, identify priorities for the next week and see where you can best invest your time to work ahead. Checking off tasks when completed can provide a sense of accomplishment. Also, identify strategies for rewarding yourself. For example, when you've completed an assignment, you might reward yourself by watching your favorite TV program.


Keep course work with you at all times and utilize small chunks of time when available. With a laptop and hot spot Internet service, you can complete the search and download the two evidence-based articles while waiting for your fellow student to meet you for lunch. You can also multitask by combining some home activities with school activities, such as doing the laundry and developing a study plan while waiting. Or you might listen to a recorded lecture on your smartphone while walking to or from class.


Nix the frustration factor. Recruit a colleague to complete the program with you or identify a study buddy early on in the program. It's helpful to have a colleague who can listen, clarify, and validate. Realize that the first week of any course is always overwhelming as you review the syllabus and identify the numerous activities that must be completed. How do you eat an elephant? You eat it one bite at a time.2 Break larger challenges into smaller tasks and follow your schedule. Also, when frustration related to an assignment limits effective activity, contact your faculty member with questions that can help you move forward. You don't always need to meet face-to-face. Often, an e-mail or a 5- to 10-minute discussion with your instructor over the phone can clarify assignment requirements.



For some, an organized work space might be a dedicated work desk at home, but for the majority of us, it's a laptop computer or a tablet. Universities publish minimum computer requirements on their websites, but most computers manufactured within the last few years have ample digital storage, word processing, Internet capabilities, a microphone, and a camera to meet your needs. Most students choose a laptop due to its versatility, but you'll also need a printer that can scan documents because many faculty today require students to submit assignments electronically.


A 16-gigabyte or larger USB flash drive is helpful for portable data storage. Although "desk" students will want to develop a file or notebook system for organizing their courses, "laptop" students will want to identify electronic course files by the course number, which allows for easy retrieval and access to course-related materials. A tip for labeling electronic courses is to include an "AA" at the beginning of each course so that course files always remain at the top of your file list.



Review your schedule for the week and identify where your time is needed most. Every course won't require an equal amount of your time. Also, study and assignment time requirements will change on a weekly basis, so you might establish a time on the weekend to review tasks for the next week or two and decide which activity requires your most immediate attention. You might also estimate the amount of time needed for priority activities and allocate accordingly based on the time you have available.



Capitalize on your strengths. Know your most productive time of the day. If you're a morning person, rise early and take advantage of when you're most productive. If you're more productive in the evening or night, schedule work times when you're more likely to be motivated, energetic, and creative. Remove distractions by silencing your phone and answering calls, texts, or e-mails when your work is completed. You might establish one or two 15-minute periods per day to check your e-mail rather than reviewing your smartphone immediately after each notification sounds.


Deciding to return to school can seem overwhelming, but it's helpful to remember that you've already proven yourself successful by completing at least one or more nursing educational programs. Your work experience as a nurse manager has further equipped you with the planning, negotiating, scheduling, prioritizing, organizing, and triaging skills needed to integrate your educational priorities into your already busy lifestyle and ensure a successful educational journey.




1. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Nursing program search. [Context Link]


2. Hogan B. How Do You Eat An Elephant? One Bite at a Time. Coral Springs, FL: Lumina Press; 2011. [Context Link]