Many of us are pursuing a professional qualification while working and a critical factor of being successful is to balance your career with your studies. A few years ago in 2003, when I started my journey as a Trainee Chartered Accountant with Grant Thornton in Belfast, I knew that I would have to sacrifice some things in order to keep my studies on track. The “Study Work Life” Balancing Act began!
The challenge was not only the 9 to 5 working day, but the substantial overtime including weekends, then lectures on a Friday night and Saturday day, assignments to hand in, never mind actually studying. The question that I always had (and I am sure many students have) was this: what would I have to sacrifice and how much? Would I achieve that elusive Study Work Life Balance?
This was quite a task for me as I’m sure it is for some of you as well, but the Study Work Life Balancing Act can be achieved – it’s just a matter of prioritising. So I want to share some of my tips on what I did to achieve this along with some thoughts from my friends who took the same journey.
1. The 80/20 rule
Pareto’s 80/20 rule of thumb is that 20% of the activities we do will affect 80% of the outcome. Thus I constantly remind myself that I should perform those activities that will give a positive outcome more consistently and more efficiently.
2. Learn to say ‘No’
The most important thing that I still struggle with is learning to say “no”. I grew up in a small village in Ireland where everyone helps everyone else, with a father who is the most accommodating, helpful person I know. I was led to believe that saying no is a bad thing, holding the fear that people will view me negatively and I would disappoint them.
However, saying no to certain things that is too much for you is essential. I had personal experience when I took on too many jobs in work at one time. That coupled with my studies caused me to get too stressed and I didn’t perform as well as I should have in everything that I had undertaken. I learnt to say “no” the hard way.
3. Do stop to smell the roses
Often when I studied and worked too hard, I sometimes forgot that there are more things to life. So sometimes, I took time off to allow myself to have a break, time with family and friends, go to a football match or the gym etc. This is imperative in order to look after your physical health and sanity!
A great friend of mine who qualified through ACCA said: “I worked as an Accountant in Industry and had been studying ACCA for sometime but I didn’t let anything drag me down because I want to achieve my goals. I scheduled my study time into day and night. During the day I read through some of my notes during lunch hour, even though it’s merely an hour but it does enough to recall what I had learnt in lectures. Every evening I practiced at least 1 question to enhance my understanding. I made sure I spent time with my family and friends to release stress from studies, and after this break I felt re-energised to revise again. Apart from that, I called my friends to discuss some issue about my studies to enhance our understanding on a topic.”
4. Schedule your time adequately – and stick to it
Having a full-time job and pursuing a professional qualification tests your time management skills to the max. Overcome this challenge by developing a schedule that allocates specific time slots to work, study and free time, ensuring that there are no overlaps. You need to find a timetable that works for you; if getting up an hour early works better than trying to concentrate in the evenings, then do that. Always remember to have a buffer area in case anything unexpected happens. It takes discipline, but the reward in the end is definitely worth the effort.
A client of mine told me: “My previous exam failures have taught me (with your advice James), the need for effective time management and adequate preparation. You must learn to plan your time around your lifestyle and have the discipline to stick to it. Planning your time is one thing, managing it is another entirely! Discipline was what got me through. Because of it, my preparation was adequate – as my results reflected; I have not failed a single paper since!”
5. Gain support from various influences in your life
We cannot achieve our goals if we do not have the support of those who have an impact on our lives (parents, relatives, employers, partners etc). Communicate your goals to them so that they will be a pillar of support to you (e.g. your employer giving you time off to study, your parents picking you up from lectures etc). This will be especially important if at any point you doubt yourself or want to quit.
My old boss in Grant Thornton, told me: “Numerous exams with 3 to 3.5 years of practical experience was really intimidating. However working and studying certainly developed my personality as well as enhancing my career development. Working developed my communication skills, and has also enabled me to approach situations, be it at work or personally, with confidence. Maybe it was working in this particular environment with a strong support system with colleagues who were pursuing the same qualification, which enabled me to come such a long way with my Accounting studies. When you see your colleagues working alongside you and still passing their exams, it gives you just the boost you need to give it your best shot with each exam you attempt. But on the flipside I have seen colleagues so caught up with their schedules of studying and working that they do not have time for themselves, which I believe is just not right. Above all, look after yourself, take time out, indulge in hobbies you like, achieve your goals and make sure you live your life to the full!”
6. Manage stress
Stress is an inevitable part of life. Doubling your daily workload means you need to be smarter about managing your stress levels. Various activities can help you do this:
- Take breaks during daily activities. This is the most underrated means of reducing stress. It helps you recollect your thoughts so when you re-start you will know what to do to achieve what you intended.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle. It’ll keep your brain in top condition to handle the increased workload. Exercise and eating healthy will increase the levels of oxygen going to the brain which should improve your memory and keep you calm. As I’ve mentioned before include leisure activities in your daily routine: even though you are pursuing a goal, it’s not your entire life. You still need leisure activities to help rest your mind and keep it responsive.
Sometimes when faced with what people think is insurmountable challenges and workload, they give in and give up at the precise moment when things are about to change. Exactly at the point when success or accomplishment is right there waiting for them to push past the obstacle. You have to be willing to push forward with all the determination you have inside you. How can you stay determined?
- Know why you want what you want. Ask yourself: What is my motivation? Is this something I really want or desire or something I only think I want? Or is it something someone else wants for me?
- Live in expectation. Believe in yourself and in your endeavors. Expect to receive them.
- Become accountable for your vision or goals. If you don’t have someone currently holding you accountable and responsible for your goals or action items, find someone you respect and trust who will not let your determination falter; someone who will ensure you do just what you said you want to do…… perhaps an Exam Coach.
These tips, combined with a healthy appetite for pursuing your studies will contribute greatly to a successful “Study Work Life” Balance.