How to Learn Something New (Without Burning Yourself Out!)

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Okay kids, listen up, because today I'm going to tell you about how I started (and subsequently flamed out of) my master's degree.

About a year ago, I decided that I was going to start taking classes online to earn my master's degree through American Military University while still working full time. I wanted to do this so that I would be prepared to enter the real world when my contract was up. So, like a good nerd, I psyched myself up, enrolled in the class, bought the books, and started studying. Every single day, I would work from 6 am until around 3 or 4 pm, then go home, eat a quick dinner, and do schoolwork for 3 to 4 hours. Remember, this is postgraduate stuff. It's a LOT of reading. And for the first couple of weeks, I felt so proud and productive, and I would take pictures of my setup with my textbook and my laptop and a steaming mug of tea. I would even work through most of the weekends, doing extra research for the thesis that was due by the end of the two-month course. As you might guess, after the first couple of weeks, I started having to drag myself through readings, skimming one page after another before realizing that I hadn't absorbed any of it. I would dread coming home from work (imagine that!), knowing I was already behind, and that 3 or 4 hours would quickly turn into 6 as I rushed to finish half-hearted work before the midnight deadline. Eventually, I knew that I had to take a step back for my own mental health, and I dropped out of the course, over $1,000 in tuition and fees out of my own pocket, and nothing to show for it.

The lesson I learned from this adventure was that I had bitten off far more than I could chew, specifically knowing myself and my need to detox for at least a couple of hours after work before diving into anything else. It's not impossible for some people to succeed and even enjoy what I tried to do, but it didn't work for me. So before I say anything else, let me say this: everyone is different, and can handle different work levels and times. What works for me may not work for you, and what works for you may not work for someone else.

So how do you handle extra things when you already work or go to school full time? There are a few things you might want to take into consideration when choosing a course or curriculum:

  1. It doesn't have to be a full-blown course to be useful. If you want to advance yourself and your career, or learn something new, you don't necessarily have to spend hours and hours on it. It can be as simple as reading an article or watching a YouTube video If you spend hours and hours reading articles and watching videos, you're still smarter than you were when you started, and you'll know that you are mentally prepared to jump into something that requires a little more time and effort.
  2. Consider something self-paced. Chasing deadlines often winds up being more stressful than it's worth when you're already working or studying full time. Choosing a course or program that you set your own pace for allows you to take a day or a weekend off if you need to. But don't forget, learning a skill or subject requires regular effort, so you might need to be a little more self-motivated for this option!
  3. Choose something you're excited about! If you look forward to the subject you're learning, you are far more likely to stick with it and succeed. Not everything we need to learn is going to be enjoyable, but especially if you're just starting the habit, it's extremely important that you actually like what you're learning. Pro-tip: if you like it enough, it can even put you in a better mood after a tough day at school/work!
  4. Set aside a time and place for your work. I personally know that I don't do my best work before dinner, so when I get home, I flop down on the couch and watch Netflix guilt-free for an episode or two of whatever I happen to be watching. But after dinner, the laptop comes out, the TV goes off, and I get down to work. Having that system in place helps me to do my best work without burning myself out.
  5. Most importantly, if something isn't working for you, don't be afraid to step back. Withdrawing from that course last year hurt my soul and my wallet deeply, but I knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do. If it's truly something you want to learn or a course you want to take, there will come a time when you're ready to step back into it, but you can't be afraid to remove yourself from that kind of stress and take a break or move on to something you can handle better.

I hope these tips work for you, and you find a program and a system that you enjoy and that advances you as a person. If you think that I left something out, or you'd like to share what works for you, don't be afraid to give me a shout in the comments!