Finding Time For Coursework

Dec 05, 2017

Seven months ago I began preparing myself for admission into Georgia Tech’s online M.S. in Computer Science program. During those months I’ve completed courses in Networking, Algorithms, Computer Architecture, Machine Learning, and Neural Networks; I’m also currently enrolled in Deep Learning and Parallel Programming courses. While the content has been challenging, the most difficult task has been finding time to take these courses without cutting into my precious family moments.

Eight months ago our second child was born. Ten months ago I accepted a new job (which introduced an additional two-hour daily commute). Twelve months ago we moved into a new house. Yeah - I could have picked a much less busy time to start working toward another degree! However, over the last few months I’ve become more efficient and more productive than I’ve ever been.

In general, I’ve been able to spend around 15-20 hours a week dedicated to coursework without cutting into any family time, all while working a full time job, and commuting 2+ hours a day. What follows are a few simple rules that have helped me achieve this pace.

1. Get Some Sleep

I’m sure anyone else who has been successful in managing a demanding schedule will tell you the exact same thing: if you are not well rested, you will likely fail. For adults, that means 7-8 hours of sleep on a daily basis.

But perhaps more important to me than how much sleep I get, is when I get that sleep. Since I’m trying to maximize my time spent with family, I want to make sure that I’m up well before my kids are. For me, that means going to bed between 9 and 10 PM so that I can wake up between 5 and 5:30 AM. The 23-year-old version of myself would likely cringe at the idea of going to bed at 9:30, and missing out on that extra movie, or a couple hours of games. The 33-year-old version of me – the current me – doesn’t miss those things because they are way less important than they used to be.

2. Set Boundaries

One of the most important decisions I’ve made during these last seven months has been to set a strict rule that when I get home from work, I will not do any coursework. Period. The short time that I have from the end of my last commute to putting my kids to bed is the only time during the week that I get to spend with my family.

Tangentially, this also helps prevent coursework-burnout. If I’m doing coursework right when I wake up, and right before I go to sleep, I can probably pour in a few more hours of classes per week, but I’m also much more likely to give up after a short period of time (I should know, I’ve done that exact same thing).

3. Work For An Employer Who Cares About You

Around a year ago, when I began seriously considering Georgia Tech’s program, I realized that I needed to find an employer who really valued my family time. Back then I was working for a startup, and startups are, by nature, frenetic beasts that demand the type of schedule that just does not allow for much in the way of a regular routine (much less a routine that has room for graduate level computer science coursework).

I was very fortunate to have found such a company not too far from me. The Container Store has regularly been ranked as one of the country’s best places to work; their family-first emphasis for employees has certainly been one of the contributing factors for those rankings each year.

Working at The Container Store means I have a regular schedule and I never work crazy hours (8-hour days as a max). I know that seems like some bare-minimum bar for employee sanity, but it’s a bar that I see most companies not meet. If you work for someone who expects 10-hour weeks, or has an always-on-call expectation, then you simply will not be able to put in the time needed for graduate level coursework in computer science. It’s just not possible without sacrificing family time - period.

Of course, The Container Store is not a bare-minimum place - so when I described my plan to start preparing for this masters program, my manager graciously granted some extra time during my working hours to devote to coursework. In all, I spend probably 30-45 minutes at the end of each day working on my studies. Of course, this means I’m way more conscious about being productive during the rest of my day and I’m proud to say that these last 7 months I’ve been the best employee that I’ve ever been. (That’s a note to all other employers out there: if you treat your employees with respect, they will pay it back to you. And yes, we’re hiring software engineers).

4. Don’t Eat Out For Lunch

Bring your lunch to work! The hour or so I get each day for lunch has become precious time to do the only true multitasking in my daily routine: eating and watching lectures. There are some obvious health and financial penalties for eating out on a regular basis, but the time penalty may be the worst.

5. Eat Well, Exercise Regularly

As I mentioned, not bringing your lunch is a health savings as well - you are much more likely to eat something healthy if you bring it from home. Eating healthy is a key step to getting a good night sleep, which is the very first rule in this list.

Along with eating well, you should be exercising regularly. After I had been getting up early for a month or so, I started lifting weights again and instantly my sleep became deeper and more efficient.

There is also a mental boost to eating well and exercising regularly - I find I’m generally happier, and am certainly much less stressed during the day. Being happy and not stressed are key factors in being able to stay mentally sharp throughout the day.

6. Start Slow, Stay Flexible

In case it’s not obvious, this routine did not materialize overnight. I started with just one item on this list and gently folded in the rest. I’ve found in my personal experience that trying to make multiple big changes all at once is a great way to make sure that none of them stick.

I started with simply waking up early. After about a month I started waking up a bit earlier and incorporated a 3-day-a-week workout. After about a month of that I started changing my diet and have completely eliminated fast-food.

Also, as any parent of 2 kids (especially 2 under 3 years old) knows, you have to be flexible. The rules above should not be set in stone, doing so will only brew frustration. It’s OK to miss a day of coursework! Sometimes Sebastian decides to wake up at 5:00 – there goes that day! Being flexible is the key to long-term success.

My Schedule

In all, here is what my daily schedule has become over the last few months:

  • 5:00 - 5:30: Wake up, begin coursework
  • 7:00 - 8:00: Family time, help Kristen w/ boys, get ready for work
  • 11:00 - 12:00: Lunch - watch lecture videos
  • Last 30-45 Minutes of Work: End work day with coursework
  • ~6:00: Arrive home: no more coursework - family time only!

Sacrifices

Of course, this schedule has been very demanding and is not without its sacrifices. I don’t have much time for “social activities” outside of my family, but those have plummeted since my first child anyway! I’d like to spend more time with my church community – there’s a men’s group that meets regularly, and I’ve love to go, but I just simply don’t have the time right now. Eating lunch at my desk also means missing out on the camaraderie of lunch with colleagues (to combat this, I’ve just been very diligent about interacting with everyone as just a normal part of my day).

I’m also much more aware of how valuable my time is, and as a result I’m just much more efficient at doing anything. I use to procrastinate all the time - now I rarely do. I’m also very interested in finding the most efficient way of doing things, instead of maybe doing more brute-force approaches like I’ve done in the past when time was less of a luxury.

I have no idea if this effort will garner me any brownie points as I apply to Georgia Tech in a few months, but at least I’ll know that I can shoulder the workload without breaking a sweat.

Interested in the courses I’ve taken? Take a look at my unofficial, personal transcript