The Art of Balancing Working While Studying

More and more Singaporean students are taking up part-time (or full-time!) work alongside their full-time studies. Be it to finance your own expenses, take a little load off your parent’s shoulders or start building out your career early – becoming financially independent is the first step in your autonomy.

One thing’s for sure, it’s not easy. Balancing your professional and academic life – and to excel in both of them – requires pristine time management.

As someone in the same shoes as yourself, below are some key rules that have helped me juggle my studies and career full-time for the past five years.

1.   Keep everyone informed, everyone

There are different people relying on you in each one of your roles, and it’s important to be honest and transparent with all of them to manage their expectations.

This means keeping everyone in the loop ahead of time. Your class schedules and exam schedules? Send them to your employer/clients as soon as you get them – even if it’s not going to make a difference in your workload. I’ve also found it helpful to inform my university peers about my work commitments.

Even before starting a new job, be transparent and inform them prior to hiring that you’re a student and might not be available during your specific timings. Depending on your line of work, you might be able to work out a flexible work arrangement.

In the past, I’ve definitely been one to conceal my role as a student for fear of having my work judged in a different light or seen as less than my colleagues. Over time, I’ve come to understand that it truly doesn’t matter as long as you fulfill the responsibilities you’ve agreed to carry out. 

2.   Triage, triage, triage!

To borrow from a medical term, triage refers to prioritising patients based on degrees of urgency.

Triage your life! Recognise that your time is limited, and at one time or another, you will need to prioritise one task over the other.

Say you have pressing work deadlines, in which case it may (key word: may) be justified for you to skip out on lectures where there’s no active learning involved. You know the ones – the ones where it’s just two hours of reading from the slides, or two hours of “group work.” Exchanging these lectures for important work hours will leave you with a minimal set of negative consequences while maximizing your potential.

However, it’s important that you catch up on the material later when you have the time! If you are afraid of missing out on important material, you can always get help from your peers. Lecture notes in exchange for lunch, perhaps?

Vice versa, you may have to ease up on work responsibilities during finals if you find yourself overwhelmed and falling behind.

3.   Delegate, automate and outsource where you can

With today’s flourishing gig economy, more and more students are discovering avenues for work where they can leverage their respective skill sets – photography, copywriting, graphic design…you name it.

If you’re in that line of remote work or have a small business of your own, remember that it’s okay to delegate. View it as “I’m expanding my work” rather than “I’m missing out on profit.” Given your time constraints as a student, optimising your processes is important to make sure your work/business can keep on running even when you’re nose deep in your textbooks.

4.   Have a solid, systematic routine in place

One concept that really stuck with me in James Clears’ book Atomic Habits was the concept of priming your environment. By adjusting your environment, you make it easy for yourself to do what needs to be done.

For you, this could mean having a dedicated workspace to go to everyday after class – whether that’s your desk at home, a seat at a coworking space, or just your university library. If you work shifts, it can be helpful to standardise them so you know exactly when you have free time for replacement classes or sudden assignments etc.

Either way, having a routine in place reduces the friction associated with jumping from one task to another so you can live your life more seamlessly.

5.   Be consistent with your studying

Balancing your work and studies is difficult enough in and of itself. Understandably, it’s even more difficult if you’re in a demanding academic field such as medicine or engineering.

Consistent studying throughout the semester helps you stay on top of your course material so you have less revision to do come exam period. This also ensures you can continue to be reliable and consistent for your employers, clients, business partners, customers – and everyone else that’s counting on you.

I’ve also found it helpful to take advantage of the semester break to get ahead with the next semester’s material. Think of it as “academic insurance” of sorts for when your heavy workload and study load coincides.

6.   Maximise free opportunities throughout the day

Learning to balance work and studies really comes down to good time management. Identify those little moments of free time throughout your day and squeeze as much as you can out of them.

One option is to download concise study material onto your phone so you can study them  during your commute. If you drive, perhaps consider recording audio notes to play in the car. I’m also a fan of keeping a file of hardcopy notes with me wherever I go so I can revise while waiting for a friend, or in a dentist’s appointment etc.

That way, you can reserve large blocks of time for the crucial revenue-generating work. Small slivers of time between classes or during lunch can also be used for catching up on emails, finances, or administrative work.

7.   Set some rules to make sure you’re progressing

It can be easy to get caught up with one area or the other, resulting in negligence or stagnation in one if you place too much focus on the other. One rule that I’ve found helpful to live by is this:

Everyday, make sure to carry out:

  • At least one thing related to studies (lectures, tutorials not included)
  • At least one thing related to work (clear emails, deliver on a project etc.)
  • And one thing that serves to progress in either area (pitching to a potential client, reading five latest research studies etc.)

This mitigates the likelihood of you neglecting both areas of your life. You can also customise it how you wish by adding on fitness, nonprofit work, or social life into the mix!

8.   Make self-care a priority

Above all, this is the most important tip for working students. With so much on your plate, taking care of your physical, social, and mental health is key to making sure you can be your best and most efficient self.

Relevant ways to practice self-care can look like:

  • No checking emails after you’ve had dinner
  • Investing in healthy, convenient food
  • Reserving Saturday nights for time with family and friends

Finding the balance

If you’re worried about passing up on those once-in-a-lifetime career opportunities due to your commitments as a student, remember this- Your career is always something you can pick up on, but your time in university is limited.

Don’t let your packed schedule prevent you from creating memories and forging friendships that matter!

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