Balancing It All as a Self-Learner

Orange paper with to-dos listed on post-it notes

You've got your to-do list, you've had your coffee, and you sit down to check off your first task. Suddenly you get distracted or pulled into something else. The next time you check the clock, the day is almost over, and you find yourself adding to your to-do list instead of checking items off.

Sound familiar?

Balance and time management are areas I've always worked to improve, especially during my Washington State University Online MBA experience. I had a mentor give me a great piece of advice that I continually remember: "The key to success is not to spend your time, but to invest it." The word invest stood out to me, and I started to realize that there were different payoff levels for how I spent my time. These are a few things that have worked for me when it comes to school, work, and personal life balance:

  • Write down what you need to do in three columns – Today, Tomorrow, This Week. For example, I spend the last few minutes of my workday on Fridays prioritizing the following week. I make a list of everything that needs to get done, and then I separate it into how quickly this action item needs to get done. Things that are highly urgent go in the Today category, items with a midweek deadline go into Tomorrow, and items that can be wrapped up by next Friday go into This Week. Once I have those action items mapped out, I take a look at the three columns, and I block off reserved time on my calendar to work through these action items. I also do the same thing with my coursework.
  • Find 15 minutes for something you want to do. I once had to do an activity called time mapping. Each participant had to spend the entire day tracking exactly how they spent their time down to the smallest detail. Did you spend time scrolling on your phone as a break? Write it down. Did you go on a walk outside for 20 minutes? Write it down. Are you scrolling through your inbox looking for old emails to find? Write it down. The significant part of that exercise was it showed me that even though my day was busy, there were many "pockets" of time I had throughout the day that I didn't realize. For example, I was taking 15-minute breaks to scroll through my phone, which added up to about an hour each day.

Many of us took on new hobbies during the quarantine period last year, and I was no different. One of the things I looked to do was learn Italian, and I was worried about how I would continue that with school and work. By identifying small gaps of time I had in my day, I learned to fit in things I wanted to do instead of pushing them off. I now spend just 15 minutes each morning practicing Italian while I enjoy a cup of coffee. Those 15 minutes a day add up to almost two hours a week of learning! If you had asked me to reserve two hours to practice Italian, I likely would have panicked and told you I didn't have time for that. Yet, I realized I could start better balancing by starting small and breaking things around natural gaps in my schedule.

  • Give yourself a way to feel accomplished. Each day for my "Today" tasks, I write each one down on a post-It note, and I stick it on a wall in my office. When I finish that task, I remove the post-it note from the wall and move on to the next job. It sounds simple, but there's a feeling of accomplishment I get watching the post-its coming down from the wall and seeing my task list shrink before my eyes. Whether it's post-its, a whiteboard, etc., find a way to show yourself how much you've accomplished visually so you feel inspired to keep going and break things down bit by bit. If you enjoy color-coding like me, then buy different colored post-it notes to separate out tasks for work, MBA, and personal.

By #CougaMBAssador Lauren Haefling