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(Todd Keith/(c) Todd Keith - BellaOra.com 2008)
(Todd Keith/(c) Todd Keith - BellaOra.com 2008)

Ruthless triage is the trick to getting through an EMBA Add to ...

Sandy (Sandra) Dias is doing a Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA. She has more than 10 years of sales experience and has spent the past six years working for L'Oréal Canada. She is both a national key account manager and a district manager for Quebec and Ontario boutiques for the luxury brand, Kiehl's Since 1851.

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Since starting my Kellogg-Schulich EMBA, the most common questions I've had have been about how I can manage working, going to school, and taking time for a personal life - all at the same time.

Before starting my program, I put in a call to one of my oldest friends in Boston, who, while working at a demanding job at Fidelity Investments, attended Babson College for an MBA. It took her four years part-time to finish, and the last year she was planning a wedding. One of the key things she learned, she said, is that work, school and personal lives fall into two camps: 1 - What you need to do; 2 - What you would like to do. A successful student learns quickly to identify which tasks and commitments fall into either of these two camps. Then comes the hard part. In order to keep your sanity and sense of control, you need to dump No. 2 and make peace with it.

The next month we will have to deliver on five major assignments, both group and individual, and if I tally up the readings, we are sitting at a mixture of 30 chapters based on core classes (Organizational Behaviour, Economics, Accounting and Statistics). This does not include the "recommended" readings, articles and research. We each have an average of 20-30 hours a week of homework, and we all feel like a snowball effect is about to hit. Defining our "need to do" will be key to survival here.

"Need to do" is highly individual and in some ways very personal. Do you need to get promoted? Do you need to step up at work? Do you need to be at every one of your children's games? Do you need a date night once a week to connect with a partner? Do you need to run every morning to stay healthy and happy? Do you need to read all six chapters or can four give you the information to deliver on a paper?

Identifying how you will support those needs is also food for thought. At home, for instance, do you have a support system? Does your partner give you the flexibility and the support needed to study on weekends? Is this the year you invest in a cleaning person or a nanny, or take your in-laws up on their offer to babysit as often as possible? As for work, support from your company is a must. They must be supportive of the Fridays away from the office, the reduced flexibility on after-hours, the planning, and, in some cases, the workload or degree of delegation. Finally, as a student, what are the deliverables - the actual academic work load? What are your group's expectations? Are you striving for an A or is B+ good enough?

Where can you give and take and still live up to the high expectations of the program?

If I had read every article, 100 per cent of every course pack, and every book given to me since the beginning of school, it would have taken the last six weeks locked up in my bedroom to get through it all. Add to that, I would have failed miserably at work and not seen a friend or family for 42 days. I found myself having to really define and select what was essential at school. I looked at a course holistically first and worked my way backward, as opposed to my experience with my bachelor's, where it was simply week-by-week, full steam ahead.

I am a self-professed workaholic, and starting the EMBA has made me really re-evaluate where I am spending my time, as it has become an increasingly precious commodity. I wake up and have to ask myself: What do I NEED to do, what will drive the business, what will ensure I deliver on expectations, and cut away the fat. Personally it's been a great learning experience and helped me to re-focus on the bottom line.

Furthermore, I have ended up doing the same with my personal life. Who are my closest and dearest friends? What relationships mean the most to me and which ones do I need to continue to nurture despite my tight schedule. Given 10 minutes, do I put a call in to my mother, brother or best friend?

I was speaking to a classmate with two kids under the age of 5. Parents are the true heroes of my class. These are the students who finish their day at 10 or 11 p.m. and start studying when I am headed to bed. They are the ones with every second of every day scheduled, written down, planned out.

I am not claiming to have all the answers here, and I know all the best intentions will not prepare a former arts student for a course on Finance (which will more than eat up and double the typical 20 hours a week of homework). But, no matter how disciplined you are, at one point you do have to embrace the program and just enjoy the ride. Give yourself a night off, catch a movie, read a non-school-related book; anything to make you feel normal again.

Some of us learned that earlier this month: After two weekends back-to-back and four chapters of Economics to read for next morning's class, half of the class still managed to meet up for drinks at a pub. That night we were a mixture of single and married people and parents, all having a great time just chilling and getting to know one another. Carving out those couple of hours was enough to fuel us for the rest of the weekend.

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