Finding Your Rhythm

The alarm goes off at 5 am. It’s still dark as I listen to the traffic (I live in the city and hardly ever drive) and a few news stories before reaching for my laptop to sort through the e-mails from Asia and Europe by the eerie blue glow of the computer screen before I head into the office where 101 issues from the U.S. bombard me all day.  My husband tells me I should try to fit in a workout in the morning before the day gets away from me, but how? I have an 8:30 meeting and have to head to school to study as soon as I can get out of the office.

A Five Hour Energy shot, swallowed while I walk to school, buys me several productive hours of study, then a few less productive hours as my brain starts to get foggy after a full day.  I am home by midnight where hopefully I will fall asleep quickly, not to be woken by my endless to-do list or thoughts of how to determine how a change in  the interest rate will effect inflation and the velocity of money.

This is the rhythm I fell into during the first quarter of my EMBA program. I made very few changes to my work schedule aside from cutting out several cocktail hours and dinners with colleagues every week. I just added school on top of what I was already doing. I was amazed at how much I was getting done!

I already knew I worked most efficiently when I have one too many things to do because it forces me to maximize my time and not fritter away minutes here and there. With the addition of this program and the extra time I had to put into learning the vocabulary, much less the concepts, I had 10 too many things to do and somehow I was managing it all. I was inspired by my classmates who seemed to be twice as busy as I was. I learned that, when necessary, my capacity was much greater than I had ever imagined.

Second quarter started off the same as the first but I had more travel to manage – something many of my classmates deal with all the time. Sure, I had put on a few pounds and the circles under my eyes were a little darker, but I had found a rhythm and was now able to dance to the music and enjoy myself a bit in the process.  Or so I thought.

After a week at a trade show right before mid-terms, I was understandably exhausted, but this time it felt a little different. I soon developed a fever and to make a long story short, ended up on antibiotics and fluids in the hospital for three days. I have NEVER been anywhere near a hospital in my life – I get the occasional head cold every winter but nothing I can’t suffer through with a box of tissue and some Vitamin C. This was different. I can’t say for certain that I would not have come down with this infection had I been sleeping more and taking better care of myself but in my mind I couldn’t separate the two.  Enough.  I had to find a new rhythm, manage all of my responsibilities and take better care of myself.

I started working out in the morning rather than checking e-mails, I cut out the unproductive late night study hours in favor of more sleep. I became more conscious about eating well. I used my assistant at work more, and I set new, more realistic, standards for myself in terms of productivity at work and school.

I could’t do things the way I had been. Funny thing is, I think the change was far more dramatic for me than anyone around me. My colleagues and direct reports at work now expected me to leave at 5 to go study and they brought me issues earlier in the day. I managed meetings more aggressively to keep them productive. I hired tutors to help me through the difficult classes, and I didn’t beat myself up if I didn’t get all of the reading done.

Then, I left my job at the end of the year which changed everything – again. The 150 beat per minute techno music that had been the soundtrack for the last seven months went silent. I went from spending five hours a day at home to 24 as I settled into a lassitude induced by the slow lullaby of my newfound freedom.

I have spent the last few months vacillating between competing feelings of contentment and disquiet. Most days I am unbelievably appreciative for the time I now have to spend on school, meeting new people, exploring new career possibilities, cooking, working out, being with friends, and simply being able to get a little more shut eye.  But there are also days when I am filled with frustration about not being more “productive” and knowing exactly what my next step is – the blessing and the curse of a type-A personality perhaps.

It has taken me a few months, but I have again settled into a new rhythm where I keep my (slightly distractible) self on track with with to-do lists and calendar reminders which help me keep the beat – get my case work done, enjoy my classmates, explore new industries, attend the myriad of professional events sponsored by the school, plan a summer trip and meet old friends for lunch and wine on the first beautiful Friday afternoon of the summer!

It’s clear to me now that throughout my life I will dance to many different tunes–and sometimes it will be much easier to hear the beat than others. Working full time and being part of a demanding MBA program is no waltz in the park. It may take weeks or even months to find your rhythm and just when you think you are tapping your foot in time… the music changes. It’s not easy to keep up with the band sometimes, but the way I see it, this is one of the many intangible benefits of the program.  It makes you dig deep to figure out how to maximize your time, and more importantly your energy, so you can keep dancing.

And dance we do…often until four in the morning the night after class!

Elizabeth Rogers, an Executive MBA student at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, blogs about her journey through an EMBA program for Poets&Quants. Her earlier posts:

Introducing Elizabeth, an EMBA Student at Chicago Booth

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