A couple of days ago, a friend asked me about my MBA. Her partner was about to begin an MBA program, and she was looking for insights on how I managed the workload, maintained work/life balance, and any advice that I would give to her and her partner before he starts his.
It was an interesting question, and I believe she deserves a lot of credit for having the foresight to ask those questions. Before I began my MBA program, I spoke with my fellow MBAs in my cohort, and there was pretty unanimous agreement that the academic load of master’s studies can introduce a lot of tension into a relationship. Couple that with the fact that the average age of an MBA student in Canada is just under 30, and happens to be roughly the same age that many couples have their first child, and you have a recipe for a very strenuous couple of years.
The statistics don’t lie, and they translate directly to my own personal experience. My son was born during the second semester of my program. In fact, he was born the Saturday after a block week course that I had just completed. Likewise, out of the 60 students in my MBA program, 14 had a child born during the 2.5-year span of our degree (two of them had two children). That’s 23%!
All that aside, even without the added load of starting a family while pursuing higher education, the demands are high. Many students, like myself, enter the MBA program with full-time jobs and are highly motivated intrinsically to produce results. This means more internal pressure to obtain higher grades, be prepared for classes and cases, and learn more in each course. That translates to more hours in front of a laptop, attending group meetings, using Zoom, and attending classes — all while trying to balance work and life outside of school.
So, what are a few of the things that I wish my partner and I had known before starting my MBA? Here we go.
Create Alignment – Write a Team Charter
You can really tell that I just completed my MBA since I’m giving couples advice to write a team charter to help handle the demands of the program, but I mean it. There’s probably a term for this in couples therapy, but I’m an MBA, not a psychologist.
Key questions to ask while you’re making the charter are:
- How will success be measured?
- How will we give each other feedback?
- How will we support each other?
- How is conflict identified and resolved?
- How will we celebrate our wins?
The purpose of the team charter is for both of you to think about goals, expectations, communication, and feedback, among other things. Creating alignment is key and an effective charter in this context will include many of the following points:
- A statement of the overall goal – You may be surprised to learn what you each think the answer to this is. You may think your partner is pursuing their MBA for personal growth or status when, in fact, the MBA is framed in their mind as a strategy for increasing earning potential and supporting the family. Or an MBA may be more about making a career pivot, which could result in a shift in work-life balance. The point here is creating alignment and understanding of why you or your significant other is embarking on this academic journey in the first place.
- Norms and expectations around scheduling life, work, and school – Scheduling time for coursework outside of class is key. The key to pursuing any time-consuming goals while respecting life and personal commitments is clearly delineating where and when one ends and the other begins. Hours set aside for studying should be for studying, and hours set aside for family should be for family. That may mean that each evening for 2 hours after the kid(s) are put to bed, you or your partner has time reserved for coursework, or maybe it means that a window between 6 am and 7 am will be set aside for studying every Tuesday and Thursday, which means lights out by 9 pm for one of you. Or maybe you both agree that Sundays are explicitly off-limits for schoolwork, and nothing, not even group meetings, can interfere with that. The key here is mutual, clear alignment around the scheduling demands of all the balls you have in the air.
- How will you support each other’s schedules when there are curve balls – Not every week is going to go according to plan. You or your partner deserves to know details like whether that big paper next week will require more of your time than you have allocated. Likewise, if the partner not doing their MBA has an important deliverable or date coming up, are there any adjustments that the MBA-to-be can make to accommodate this? And maybe that means missing a class or getting a babysitter. Establishing routines and norms like a Sunday night check-in to go over what the upcoming week looks like can be a game-changer.
- How will success be recognized/celebrated – It’s not all work and no play. It’s just as important to recognize and know how wins will be celebrated. Think of things like treating yourselves to a special dinner at the end of every semester or even after every big exam. Likewise, how will you both continue to ensure you’re celebrating those special family events like birthdays and anniversaries during the school year?
Failing to plan is planning to fail. The key with this document is generating alignment around what the next couple of years will look like, being clear on expectations of one another, and mitigating the impact of unforeseen events (which will happen). In your late twenties or early thirties, a lot can happen in two or three years, so being prepared for that is key.
Practice Deep Work
At the beginning of my second year of my MBA, a professor for a block week course in Business and Technology Management recommended a book to our class called Deep Work, written by Cal Newport. Newport is an MIT-trained computer science professor at Georgetown University who explored the costs of shallowness and the joys of depth in his bestselling books, including Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, his long-running email newsletter, and his regular articles for publications such as The New Yorker.
Deep work loosely refers to the sensation of hyperfocus that you can experience when you lose yourself in an activity. Common characteristics of the state that you may have experienced include losing track of time, such as when you sit down to write a paper or work on a task and suddenly two hours have passed, or intense focus where your cognitive output is high, and if you become distracted, you may have a difficult time picking up where you left off. Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about the sensation and referred to it as a flow state, which athletes commonly experience when time seems to slow, and their actions become automatic, rapidly and seamlessly responding to changes in their environment or field of play.
The idea behind Newport’s work is that we can create the conditions for deep work to optimize the efficiency of our professional and academic lives, ultimately freeing up more time for friends, family, leisure, and some “deep rest”.
After reading the book (or, listening to it on Audible), I found it incredibly valuable to introduce some of the concepts to my own academic and work life. Some of the important points that I implemented over the last year and a half of my MBA were:
- Eliminate distractions and focus on the task at hand. When the time came to work on a paper or a case, I found a space free of distractions, which could be a tucked away corner on campus, a coffee shop where nobody I know would interrupt me, or my home office with the door shut. I put my phone on “do not disturb,” closed browser windows that I didn’t need, and grabbed any coffee or snacks I needed for however long I was going to work. I consciously decided not to allow myself to be distracted with a phone pickup or a wander through the kitchen pantry.
- Schedule, schedule, schedule. I treated deep work sessions as meetings or commitments like any other in my schedule. If I had to work on a paper or a case for an upcoming deadline, I would block off my calendar for however long I could manage. With a full-time job and a family, planning well in advance was key, and I was constantly looking at course outlines to compare due dates with life commitments. On more than one occasion, I ended up blocking off 3- or 4-hour chunks of time to write entire papers weeks in advance of the due date, not because I like to write papers, but because that’s the best time that would work with my life. One such occasion was during a car ride down to Montana for a bachelor party. Not taking advantage of a 4.5-hour block of otherwise wasted time to get ahead on a deliverable has a very high opportunity cost when you have life commitments.
- Be ready to work whenever you can. At first, it’s difficult to drop into a deep work session for more than 45 or 60 minutes, but like anything, you get better with practice and may even have a couple of marathon sessions like the one I just mentioned. But you’ll also get better at busting your laptop out and dropping into the zone even when there are potential distractions around, and squeezing in 20 or 30 minutes here and there through the week can add up. There was another block week course that I had, and while waiting for my wife, who was stuck in traffic, I just powered through that evening’s assignment. In the time it took for a couple of my classmates to talk about their weekend and lament the class’s workload, I finished that day’s work. Newport calls this the “journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling,” and to work anytime, anywhere, I brought my laptop with me literally everywhere for almost three years.
If you don’t want to read the book, though if you’re entering your MBA, I highly recommend you do, Todoist has a great breakdown of many of the book’s strategies and tactics.
The point is, whether you’re about to start your MBA or just lead a busy life with work, family, sports, etc., you need to start treating your time as a finite resource. Recognizing that there is always an opportunity cost to any time you spend doing anything helps you prioritize how you spend your days. Going through my MBA, strong academic performance was an important goal, but compromising the quality of time I spent with my family and friends was not something that I was particularly interested in making a habit of. Deep work practices were highly effective tools that I used to optimize the efficiency of my limited cognitive resources. And if that sounds a little intense, it’s because it is, but it’s what allowed me to maintain a more than satisfactory GPA without putting my personal life on the backburner.
A few closing thoughts
I think it’s also important to ask yourself what you really want to get out of your MBA. Some people do it for the networking opportunities, others to pivot their careers, and still, others to level up their earning potential. I did mine for a little bit of everything. I originally began my MBA with the intention of focusing my career towards data intelligence and information. What I instead found was a passion and curiosity for organizational behavior, high-performing teams, and leadership development.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed a strong appreciation for human behavior in an organizational context. So, every time someone reaches out to me asking about how I found the workload of an MBA or what I got out of it, I’m just as curious as they are about their motivation and goals. At the end of the day, I think it’s important that you be very clear on where you want to go with your MBA because that’ll act as your compass towards success when the workload becomes heavy or your motivation starts to wane. Having a north star will keep you oriented towards success.