Work-Life Balance In An EMBA Program? What Balance?

HIs friends call him the "Happy Lawyer"

As an executive student, we all try to balance our day jobs, our MBA studies and our lives outside of either.  The MBA for Executives at Darden is a full-time, 21-month long marathon, molded to fit around a full time job.  It’s intense; it’s designed to provide the students with the same MBA as the full-time students receive.

I’ll give you the summary up front: I have not yet found a magic bullet to achieve the perfect balance.  But, I’ll share some of my experiences, and would love to hear from others about their struggles and their successes in balancing it all.

When I first faced the daunting amount of work required upon entry to the MBA program, despite the warnings, I impulsively started “sprinting” by adopting unsustainable habits to find more study time.  For example, I arbitrarily blocked large hours every night to study in isolation, neglecting my family, friends and routines of my pre-MBA life.  Regardless of family activities or holidays I was nose-down in my study materials.

I constantly looked for incremental time savings.  An avid Wall Street Journal reader, I left them to pile up and be recycled, unread.  Only afterwards did I realize they were prime macroeconomics supplemental study texts.  I initially went cold turkey on social media.  No more Facebook posts, surfing friend’s pictures or catching up on their lives vicariously.  I was pleased to recover that daily 30 minutes (OK, an hour some days) to dedicate to my studies.  However, I soon realized that a social media hermit is an object of concern.  “Was I OK?” some posted.

How right they were.  I was not OK.  I had failed to find a balance.  Instead, I was cramping during the first few miles of the marathon because of my untenable study behaviors.  Suddenly, the finish line looked far away.  If there was an “unlike” button on my work-life-study routine, I would have clicked it.  Repeatedly.

Little by little, trial by error, I surrendered some of my anxiety.  Darden had given me world-class tools to help with the balance, but I had ignored them.  Health screening, exercise plans, stress reduction therapy, desk stretching.  I found the handouts, re-read the notes.  I scheduled time with my family, time in the gym.  I peeked at social media, assuring my friends that I was OK.  I resumed reading the WSJ, although with a critical eye to topics and a timer counting down the minutes.

Then my first term exams hit.  “’Work life balance’, what balance?” we wryly commented.  It was sprint time again for two weeks.

In truth, it seems that the work-life balance is a dynamic proposition.  It requires constant fine tuning as the situation, the environment and the demands change.  After my first exams, I think I was able to more quickly resume the scheduled time with family, the WSJ articles, even social media.

Perhaps, as we continue in the transformation of the Darden experience, perhaps seeking the optimal work-life balance is the lesson. Maybe it’s just another training ground to ready us for the increased responsibility, job demands and time commitments we are likely to assume as executives once we complete the MBA program.  With that in mind, I am continuing to embrace the challenge, work the problem, seek the optimal solution.

Peter Vanderloo is an in-house lawyer at a well-known tech company in the first year of the Executive MBA program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. His previous posts at Poets&Quants for Execs:

Meet Peter: He’s a Darden Student Blogging on his EMBA Journey

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