Pressure can be a great motivator or a force of destruction. While some people excel under pressure, everyone faces burnout at some point unless there is some periodic relief. Successful people seem to find the right balance between their professional and personal lives. Even captains of industry find time to pursue hobbies. Where do they find the time? They find it in a relentless pursuit to balance work and personal priorities.
Peak performers work fewer hours and are more productive because they take care of their mental and physical well-being. The same approach applies to professionals who are working and raising a family while earning their degree. That’s why we’ve put together 11 tips and tricks from our best students who handled the pressure and came out on top.
1. Have a financial plan.
One of the most common forms of stress is due to financial uncertainty. While student loans are generally easy to obtain, make sure you aren’t layering on too much debt that will burden you for years to come. If you are attending school full time, do you have sufficient cash flow for tuition, books, fees and living expenses? Develop a complete picture of how much you are spending on your master’s education and be sure to take the total MBA program cost into consideration when comparing schools. Tapping into your employer’s tuition reimbursement program is a great idea, but remember it may come with a commitment on your part to stay with the company. Be sure to inquire about financial scholarships and research financial assistance from professional associations and affinity groups.
2. Involve your family in the big decisions.
Going back to graduate school will require you to make sacrifices, but it also requires sacrifices from those who are closest to you. Are they on board with your decision? Bring them into your decision-making process and ask for their support. Help them understand the long-term benefits of going back to school and why this is the right time to do so. If you have their understanding, it will definitely ease the burden and reduce any feelings of guilt during those long hours in the library. Every worthy endeavor requires sacrifices.
The MBA program has a well-earned reputation as the divorce degree for the one-third of students who are married at the time of enrollment. Better communication makes a difference in keeping the relationship alive and hurt feelings at bay. Demonstrate how important the people in your life are to you. Talk to them early and often and stayed focused on the goal.
3. Dedicate time each week to work, life, and your studies.
This is what balance is all about. It does not necessarily mean allotting equal amounts of time for each, but being fully engaged in what you are doing at the moment. When you are with your family, do not let yourself become distracted by social media or instant messages from your classmates or colleagues. Be sure to reserve ample time to attend your MBA classes, but don’t forget to include time for studying and group work outside the classroom. There is no secret formula for achieving the perfect balance; however, our best MBA students find it useful to schedule personal time (date night) with loved ones and friends. Make a schedule, fine-tune it as your study efficiency improves, and then stick to it.
4. Get your employer’s support and schedule business trips well in advance.
If you are working full-time while enrolled in a program, it is inevitable that you will miss a class or two for business reasons. Most programs permit a few absences without penalty, but professors often require advance notification. Even though today’s classroom technology provides for remote connectivity, it’s not the same as being there. Plan accordingly and do your best to schedule trips around your class schedule. Make sure your manager is aware of your plans to return to school before you start the MBA program. They will most likely support and encourage you, but will frown upon unexpected requests for time-off or missed deadlines. If you are going to miss multiple classes you may need to seek the approval of the Program Director or Dean.
5. Delegate responsibilities (big and small) whenever possible.
The most effective leaders are good at entrusting others with things that are not mission critical. Many start-ups fail simply because the founders never reached the point where they felt comfortable turning over the reins of operations to professional managers. Learn to distribute your personal and professional obligations more intelligently. We live in a service economy so it’s increasingly common to off-load some of the weekly chores in order to free up some additional time. Remember, free time is your most valuable asset while in school. If you value your time then it’s easy to justify outsourcing a task even if it’s something you enjoy doing.
6. Balance course difficulty each semester.
Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses and design your class schedule for maximum benefit. Prioritize performance. Load-balance your MBA coursework, as much as the program allows. Taking a combination of difficult and less difficult courses allows you to balance out the demands of a rigorous MBA program. Build enough capacity into your “operating system” to handle unexpected spikes in traffic. Our most productive students anticipate overloads and build in contingency plans in advance.
7. Exercise regularly.
If you exercise regularly, don’t give it up; if you don’t, you should start. Alertness, concentration, attention to detail and creativity are the basic building blocks of quality work, but all of those qualities suffer to some degree when you are unhealthy. Harvard Medical School reported that exercise improves your memory and cognition. Start exercising regularly to increase your concentration and productivity. There’s plenty of research showing the benefits of physical activity on a healthy and productive mind.
8. Get enough sleep.
Pulling an all-nighter is a rite of passage among undergraduate students, but try doing that when you are working full-time and managing a family. You may get away with it once in a while, but it shouldn’t become a habit. Those who perform best and retain the most knowledge do not cram very often. Many studies have conclusively shown that sleep deprivation decimates performance. Exercise and getting enough sleep are two of the best things you can do to improve your productivity during your degree. Save your all-nighters for fun after you complete your MBA coursework!
9. Schedule some personal downtime.
If you plan ahead you won’t have to miss out on special moments with family and friends. Additionally, don’t forget to schedule some downtime for yourself. Keep an eye on the goal and recognize that sacrifice is an ingredient to success. However, that doesn’t mean that you should stop living.
10. Leverage your network for difficult classes and assignments.
Much of graduate learning is done via group work where you’ll not only learn about yourself but how to collaborate with others. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek the support of your classmates. No matter how difficult the workload, you are not always bound to go it alone. Few students enter a program with the complete complement of the skills and knowledge needed to succeed. It is more likely that everyone will be called upon to contribute something at different points in the program. Work with your classmates and you’ll find the experience much more rewarding and enlightening.
11. Make sure that you do not fall behind; ask for help when you are having trouble.
Business leaders know their weaknesses and rely on experts to close the skills gap in order to make sure projects are successful and delivered on time. If you are having difficulty, don’t wait to ask for help from faculty, teaching assistants, private tutors, or other students. Whether or not you are enrolled in an executive or accelerated MBA program, many courses are taught in a concentrated period of time. Accelerated courses are typically delivered in ten-weeks or less, so if you fall behind, catching up is nearly impossible.
Putting these tips to work will greatly reduce the risk of burnout and ease the burden on your family life. Getting a graduate degree requires a reordering of your priorities, but it doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice everything.