Most of us have experienced just how time-consuming and stressful studying can be at some point in our lives. Late nights spent going through piles of books while nursing a bottomless cup of coffee in preparation for that exam the next morning; sacrificing a night out with friends to hit the library after class to work on that looming assignment due at the end of the week.
For busy professionals, finding the time and energy to study can be even more of a struggle, especially after coming home late from a day of gruelling back-to-back meetings and having to prepare for an early start the next day to meet an upcoming deadline.
Add to the responsibilities and commitments of a busy working life a new baby, and finding the time and energy to study can seem a superhero feat.
But International Sales Manager for global publisher Penguin Random House, new mum, and Imperial Global Online MBA student, Kara Nicholson, is managing to do just that.
We were keen to find out how Kara manages to maintain a work/life balance as a successful manager, new mum and online MBA student, and if she had any advice for any mums out there similarly looking to take up online MBA studies alongside their family and work commitments. She shares her thoughts below:
Q: You’re a successful manager, mother to a young child and studying for an MBA. How do you manage to juggle your work and family responsibilities with your studies?
A: I am juggling, but I never feel like I’m a step ahead of the game – I just try to keep those plates in the air by whatever means necessary! It goes without saying that time-management is the single most important goal, which is difficult with a five-month-old baby who has no concept of time or her parents’ need for sleep. But I cope by being a strong believer in the motto: ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person’– I know myself well enough by now to have faced the fact that the busier I am, the more enthusiasm I have and the better I am at managing my time effectively, and if given too much free time, I somehow get nothing done whatsoever.
The best advice I’ve had about juggling responsibilities is from the other mums and dads on the MBA programme, which is to carve out dedicated time for studies and stay committed to that timeline no matter what, and to make sure your spouse/partner is respectful of this.
Seems obvious, but it’s really difficult to achieve when you have so much on your mind all of the time and are desperate for a nap or would rather do literally anything else in the world than sit at your desk and read a few chapters from an economics textbook. But it’s important to be strict with yourself. I’m not going to lie – I’m not always successful at it, and sometimes instead of devoting two hours on a particular evening to my studies, my brain can only do an hour max before shutting down completely. I try not to be too hard on myself when that happens, and to make up the time during my next MBA-devoted evening.
Q: How do you prioritise your time between work, family and studies?
A: Allocating time for each section of my life is the hardest but most important thing I do each week. During the day, it’s job first, no question. I am a dedicated mum and wife before the working day and then again after the work day, but from 9-5 my brain goes into work mode and I chip away at endless to-do lists and presentations and trip preparation. I just completely compartmentalise, so that when I’m focussing on work, I don’t allow myself to think about looming MBA deadlines or my family, and then on my dedicated MBA evenings or weekend afternoons, I go into the same compartmentalised mode with my studies. Easier said than done sometimes, but I try to keep calm and just completely plug into one ‘persona’ at a time, giving more hours to work or MBA when major deadlines or exams are on the horizon.
Obviously, if there were some sort of family emergency or I thought that my daughter needed more time with me on a particular day, everything else takes a back seat immediately. Family will always truly come first. But on a regular day-to-day basis, I keep the three parts of my life separate and allocate my time accordingly.
Q: Many people only have a work/life balance to maintain, but you have a work/life/study balance to manage. How difficult do you find maintaining a work/life/study balance? What do you find has been the greatest challenge?
A: It is extremely difficult, and anybody who says otherwise is sugar-coating it or is a much stronger person than I am. The greatest challenge for me so far was having a baby right in the middle of a block of courses and having to learn how much more valuable time was going to be from then on (and kicking myself for not realising beforehand how much time I truly had!). So the challenge was to completely re-learn my concept of time and how to prioritise and juggle accordingly while also trying to stay focussed on minimal sleep.
I also started a new job within a month of having a baby – another big challenge which again rejiggered my time allocation for studies. Not something I’d recommend for everyone, and it was a stressful time, but I weighed the pros and cons and the opportunity was too good to miss. And when I’m not travelling for my job, I work in my home office, so that has alleviated many other complications like time spent commuting, etc.
A major bit of luck which has significantly helped with these challenges is that I am blessed with an incredibly supportive husband who knows how important my job and this MBA programme are to me and who helps out whenever he can so that I can work full-time whilst dedicating a few evenings each week to lectures, studies, and weekly Skype conference calls with my lovely syndicate group.
Q: What would be your top tips for maintaining a work/life/study balance?
A: My main tip is no excuses. This has become my mantra when I’m desperately tired and am preparing for another work trip and have an MBA assignment due and it all has the potential to get overwhelming. But don’t start asking for extensions, either from work or from the MBA programme managers, since you’ll spend more time making excuses and continuing to stress out about it than you would have spent just getting everything done on time in the first place. Hit the deadlines no matter what so you can then enjoy family time without distraction.
My only other (vital) tip: find a partner who cooks!
Kara Nicholson is currently studying the Global Online MBA programme offered through Imperial College Business School. Find out more about the Global Online MBA programme.