A question from a reader: Rowan, any thoughts on juggling study while working full-time? I’m doing an evening course and I’m getting zero support from my employers, probably because the course is in an area that is not directly related to my current job. I’ve been finding that I’m getting little or no leeway when I have a lot of work on at the office – I end up skipping classes and I’m too tired from the working week to do much additional study. How do people cope with this?!

Your employers are obviously not cutting you any slack because your course of study is “not directly related to” your work. Fair enough – I can see their point to some extent. As an employer, I would wonder why I should support your efforts at career management and self-improvement if it is not going to ultimately benefit me? So, If they are not being supportive and it’s business as usual despite your upcoming exams; for you this has become a plain and simple situation of time management.

I contend that time management is, at the very least, a misnomer and, more probably, a myth. You don’t manage time; time is constant and finite. You manage yourself to the best of your ability within the time available. If you had to do this with no end in sight, it would be a huge strain for all concerned. Fortunately, the duration your course of study is predetermined and finite and that makes carving up your life somewhat bearable. Practical steps:

1. You need to look at the long-term countdown to the exams and calculate how many hours you need to set aside in total – for attending lectures, for groupwork, for study and for the exams themselves. Crude maths will then determine how many hours per week you need to set aside for all of this.

2. It is imperative that you get buy-in from family and friends on all of this at the outset. If your spouse / partner / best friend is getting all pouty because you won’t come out on a Saturday afternoon, you haven’t done a good enough job of managing their expectations. “This is how it is, this is how it is going to be and this is how long it’s going to be like that …”

3. Is there any possibility of performing the same expectations-management exercise on your boss at this juncture? Is there ANY benefit to your completing this course of study that you can portray to your boss? Will he or she buy it? Talk this through with a trusted friend or two and get them to play Devil’s Advocate as a dry run for you before you attempt to have that conversation with your boss.

4. Start chopping up time on a weekly basis. Use a grid of 7 by 24 to represent the 168 hours in the week. Block out sleep and meals first. Now use a different colour and block out the fixed aspects of your course – lectures, tutorials, group project time. Then do the same for your commuting time and while you do that, consider is there any way you can make use of your time on the road with tapes of lectures or notes? Then highlight your standard working hours in yet another colour. Allow for some extra time as a contingency. How much time is left? Whatever is not coloured in by now is what remains to you to do your basic domestic tasks, keep your friends and family happy, do your home study and (hopefully) have a few hours to dedicate to yourself. (Some illustrations of this approach here.)

5. A very useful exercise on this is to do a visual weekly plan like this, track your actual time usage on another sheet and then compare the two. Slavishly following a weekly or daily plan is never going to be the full answer. If you use it well, the grid highlights where you are losing time and indicates where you need to plan a little better or be more assertive in protecting your time. Studies consistently show that the biggest time-stealers are people. Be aware of adopting other people’s agendas and urgencies. When working with clients, I frequently find that the person you need to be most assertive with is yourself. Take real ownership of your time and place a value on it for this period and you will find yourself far less stressed and far more efficient.