What It Takes to Complete a College Degree Online: Self-discipline

The degree of requisite self-discipline while pursuing an online degree is considerable. It must be consistent and it must encompass several interrelated areas: time availability, commitments and obligations, and financial responsibilities.

That an online learner needs to have the self-discipline to park themselves in front of a computer and concentrate on an assignment is an easy requirement for most learners to grasp. But self-discipline must extend beyond meeting assignment deadlines. Frequently, study efforts are interrupted or eroded by distractions from a variety of sources – personal interests, work and family obligations, and the usual surprises life throws into the mix. Working against all the learner’s hard work and good intentions are the corrosive effects of “planning fallacy” and “present preferences” cognitive biases. Understanding how these biases work and learning how to identify when they are in play is an essential skill for developing the self-discipline needed to succeed in the online academic world.

A common trap that ensnares many learners is a strong tendency to think of self-discipline in terms of  “toughing it out” when it comes time to complete something that requires an extended effort, particularly when the task evokes a negative emotional state. To be sure, persistence and willpower are important, but they are not sufficient. Good self-discipline practices and habits need to extend into other areas of life.

Given the current costs involved with completing any degreed program, the learner needs a clear personal financial picture that extends to the completion of the program. When in place, it is easier to defer the immediate gratification derived from non-educational purchases in the interest of making tuition payments. I’m assuming here the learner’s education is self-funded, however the same applies if the learner is relying on student loans. In fact, in the latter case, financial self-discipline may be even more important in the long term as it is easy to relax financial responsibility when flush with other people’s money.

As important as assessing financial resources, a prospective learner needs to complete a rigorous assessment of their time commitments and other long term obligations as well. Holiday and vacation plans, changing interests with children, workplace projects, and a plethora of other foreseeable events adversely effect time resources in unpredictable ways. The impact can be somewhat mitigated if such events are acknowledged, sized, and included in the overall academic strategy.

Of course, even the best laid plans will be subject to surprises. Health issues, workplace changes, technical issues, attractive opportunities, and personal emotional challenges such as boredom, fatigue, and frustration can only be accommodated by frequent adjustments to the learner’s academic strategy. But that’s life for you. Everything else, however, can be planned.