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How to Set Goals and Achieve Balance—in and Outside the Classroom

Learn how solid goals and time management can help you achieve success.

2/27/2019 | Going Back to School | 8 minute read

Written By:
Leslie Helmuth

Many adults returning to school after a hiatus are managing multiple commitments. At first, it may seem impossible to achieve academic success when you're also juggling business trips, carpools, and board meetings. Is it challenging? Yes. But impossible? Definitely not.

Striking a Balance

In her work as a certified life and business coach, Deb Levy stresses that success depends on finding a healthy balance among all your priorities.

As a concept, balance is tricky. You can’t possibly dedicate equal amounts of time to all of your priorities. Instead, Levy likes to think of it as “school/work/life sanity.”

In essence, the balance encompasses:

  • A state of satisfaction and engagement in meaningful areas of your life.
  • The ability to cope effectively with challenges in specific areas of your life so they don’t interfere with or inhibit engagement with others.
  • A healthy stress/recovery ratio and stretch/comfort ratio. This enables you to move gracefully between important areas of your life.
If you can find that healthy balance, you’re more likely to experience:
  • Increased engagement
  • Increased productivity
  • Positive relationships (at work, with family, etc.)
  • Better performance
  • Increased satisfaction
Levy shares her tips for setting goals and finding balance as a student.

Keys to Achieving Balance

Levy says that a successful path forward involves three key steps:

  • Setting effective goals.
  • Creating a workable schedule.
  • Evaluating priorities.

1. Set Effective Goals

When creating a roadmap for success—for a course, project, or semester—setting goals will help fuel your journey. But how do you set goals that you're motivated to accomplish? Levy recommends using the following criteria.

A good goal is:

Intrinsic. It is meaningful to you, and you’re internally motivated to meet it (rather than extrinsic, where you’re adopting goals other people set for you).

Challenging. It needs to stretch you and provide you with a learning opportunity (an easy goal where you don’t learn something new is of less value).

Approach-oriented. The goal is framed positively. “I will study nine hours a week to do well on my final exam,” instead of, “I need to study nine hours a week so I don’t fail the test.”

Flexible. A good goal is not rigid. It's responsive to feedback.

Harmonious. You are likely working on multiple goals simultaneously (academic, personal, family, work, fitness, etc.). You don’t want these goals to be in conflict. An overambitious fitness goal (“I will work out a minimum of seven hours a week”) may impede your progress in an academic goal (“I need to study a minimum of four hours a week to succeed in my course”). If you choose goals that complement each other, you are more likely to succeed at them.

2. Create a Workable Schedule

Once you’ve set your goals, you need to plan how you’ll accomplish your work.

Chart your semester.

This is when you lay out the big picture, logging deadlines, commitments, and recurring activities.

It’s important here to map out the different areas of your life—academic, work, and personal—in one master plan. By doing so, you can anticipate when conflicts may arise and make adjustments.

Plan weekly—and daily—to manage time and energy.

As you get started, you can set aside time at the start of each week to review your schedule and plan in more detail.

Consider, too, taking stock each day. Be mindful of the ebbs and flows of your attention and awareness. When are you most productive? Perhaps the morning is the ideal time to accomplish focused tasks, and the evening is best reserved for creative activities.

Learn from what works, and adjust your schedule as often as needed to achieve good results.

3. Evaluate Your Priorities

As you plan, you’ll likely need to evaluate your priorities periodically. The Eisenhower Matrix (below) can help you identify your most critical and important tasks. That way, when new demands arise, you can quickly assess them and shield your schedule from competing priorities.

Not Urgent but Important
(Important Goals)
Urgent & Important
(Critical Activities)
Not Urgent & Not Important
Urgent & Not Important

4. Work smarter. Not harder.

If you’re a chronic multi-tasker, try to break the habit. Current research suggests we reduce our productivity by as much as 40 percent when we split our attention between many tasks. Find ways to focus on one task at a time.

5. Take time to reward yourself.

Managing so many competing commitments is intense. Be sure to set aside time to acknowledge your hard work, rest—and reward yourself. This is the fuel that will keep you on the path toward achieving your ultimate goals.


To put Levy's advice for goal-setting and planning to use, test out our online planning sheet. You'll identify a goal and map your plan for accomplishing it. Save your plan as PDF for future reference.

Try the Planning Exercise

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