It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2013.

Jen Green was off running an errand while her husband, Sean, was outside playing baseball with their three kids, who were ages 2 months, 2 years and 4 years at the time. Sean, who was born with a congenital heart defect but had lived a healthy, normal life since having open heart surgery as an infant, had felt chest pains earlier that day. He thought little of it after they had subsided.

Then he suddenly collapsed. Paramedics rushed Sean to the hospital, but it was too late. He died shortly thereafter. He was just 26 years old.

Amid the immense shock and grief, Jen was working as a registered nurse at the Florida Hospital and had just begun a bachelor’s-to-doctoral nursing degree program. Now she was a 26-year-old, single mom of three kids. She had decisions to make. Should she take time off from her job? Should she delay or quit her degree program?

She did neither.

“I owed it to my husband, and I owed it to my kids to keep going,” recalls Green, DNP, ARNP, CPNP-AC, who today is a core faculty member with the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Capella University. “It was incredibly hard, but I was determined to succeed in life and show my kids that I could do anything and be whoever I wanted to be. I had to keep going. That’s what my husband would have wanted.”

However, she is the first to admit that she didn’t do it all on sheer resolve and determination. It took some serious time management skills.

Although average nursing students today are not likely dealing with the same sort of trauma Green faced, they typically have very busy, complex lives. Many of them are going to school while working full time and taking care of families. Even though their situations may be different, Green strongly believes that the time management skills she developed can apply to anyone in nursing school today. She provides her top tips below:

Prioritize – Green’s mantra is that you can’t do it all—at least not all at the same time. She faced that reality head-on after her husband’s passing and strictly prioritized what needed to get done and when. She advises any nursing student to do the same and always to be asking, “What needs to be done right now and why, and what can wait?”

“I asked myself every day, ‘What has to be done at this moment for me to be successful?’ If cleaning the house or doing the laundry or paying the bills could wait until after my school work was done, then it would wait. I knew what was mission-critical at all times.”

Learn to say “no” – Part of prioritizing is learning to say no—both to others and to yourself, Green says. She cautions nursing students to brace themselves for people to react defensively, or accuse them of being rude or selfish when they start to say no.

“It was a really hard thing for me to learn to do, because I would never tell anyone no in the past,” Green remembers. “But it had to be done. People had to hear no from me all the time. I couldn’t drop everything and give them what they needed. I couldn’t always do the fun things they wanted to do. It’s not being selfish. It’s being smart and focused. You only have so much time and energy to give. You have to protect that.”

Take care of yourself – Even the best time management tips won’t work if you are run down and unhealthy. Green advises those in nursing school to take care of themselves as part of their time management strategy. Get enough sleep to function well. Don’t succumb to the temptation and ease of junk food. Get moving whenever and wherever you can, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator and parking in the farthest spot from the door of wherever you are going.

Stick to a routine – For Green, sticking to a strict schedule while in nursing school was a godsend. It gave her a clear daily roadmap to success. A rigid routine also gave her that sense of control that she craved. Her calendar may have been scheduled down to five-minute increments, but it kept her focused on what needed to be done and helped ensure it all happened.

“Any parent knows how beneficial a routine can be, and it’s not just you, but for everyone around you, too,” Green says. “Map out a routine that works for everyone in the family, and get them to buy into it. You want everyone aware of the plan and working toward the same goal.”

Don’t get distracted – Green points out that there are probably more distractions today than there were when she was in nursing school nearly 15 years ago. These include the distraction of technology, namely things like Instagram, Facebook, texting, etc. That’s why this tip is more important than ever.

“We all spend an absurd amount of time looking at our screens at things that don’t move our lives forward, particularly social media,” Green says. “Nursing students absolutely need to compartmentalize that. You can’t let yourself be distracted every 10 seconds. Make it part of your routine to schedule time for social media. Get it on your calendar like anything else, and don’t touch it until that appointment comes up.”

Stay focused on your goal – Finally, Green advises to never lose sight of why you are in nursing school. What is your goal beyond graduating? What is the difference you want to make in the world? Having that focus can help keep all of the other time management strategies on target.

“Whatever your goals, whether they be financial or career aspirations, stay laser-focused on that,” Green says. “For me, it was about being a single mom with three kids and needing a career that could provide for my family. That need for financial independence kept me very motivated. But it was also about achieving a greater purpose in life.”

Green concludes by reiterating that while every nurse’s situation is different, all nurses have a need to manage their time in a way that gets the job done without burning out, and that begins in nursing school.

“During the hardest imaginable time of my life, I finished my degree, and I’m really proud of that,” Green says. “And if I can do it, anyone can. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it in the end.”

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