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Pink Planners & Prioritization: How I Navigate the M.S. in MIT Program

Halle Duenkel (M.S. in the Management of IT '24) shares how to navigate the M.S. in MIT Program amid work and personal commitments. Discover Halle's invaluable insights for balancing academics, personal life, and professional commitments.

Halle Duenkel poses for the photographer with green trees in the background.

By Halle Duenkel (M.S. in MIT ’24)

One of the most common questions I receive as an M.S. in MIT student ambassador is how to manage the seemingly overwhelming task of balancing academic responsibilities with personal and professional commitments. It’s a challenge many of us face, but it’s also a manageable one. Today, I want to share some insights from my own journey navigating through competing priorities while pursuing my graduate degree.

Currently, my plate is fuller than ever before, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Alongside my studies, I’m joyfully engaged and preparing for my wedding later this year. On top of that, I recently received an internal promotion at work, which means I’m leading an entire team. Add in church activities, maintaining a social life, occasional lacrosse refereeing, and family obligations, and you have a whirlwind of responsibilities. It’s a lot, but it’s doable, and I feel incredibly blessed to have such an abundance of wonderful things happening in my life on top of the M.S. in MIT.

Strategic Prioritization

So, how do I manage it all?

First and foremost, I’m a planner. My trusty hot pink paper calendar is my lifeline. I meticulously pencil in deadlines, team meetings, and personal commitments. Weekends are sacred for family and friends, with no school-related obligations. Evenings are reserved for focused academic work after my day job, and it seems like I am balancing a lot!

Halle's hot pink planner for keeping herself organized during the M.S. in MIT Program

Halle’s trusty hot pink planner!

But let me digress for a moment from the term “balancing act.” While it’s commonly used, it doesn’t quite capture the nuanced approach I take to organizing my life. Rather than viewing it as a balancing act, I prefer to see it as strategic prioritization. The term “balancing act” implies that all tasks, events, and commitments hold equal weight, which is rarely the case. Instead, I choose to order my priorities. This approach acknowledges that not everything carries the same significance, and I assign priority and weight to each aspect of my life accordingly. Therefore, when inevitable setbacks occur, it’s often the lowest-priority tasks that are affected, while the higher-priority items have already been addressed. When conflicting priorities arise—which they inevitably do—I take a step back and assess what needs immediate attention and what can wait. For me, I prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance, considering what energizes me and what can realistically fit into my day.

Organization and the Power of Communication

Transitioning from this mindset of prioritization to the practical aspect of organization, I rely heavily on structured systems to keep me on track. The tools I use the most are Outlook calendar invites, Teams meetings, and my trusty pink paper calendar. Yes, you will never catch me without this pink calendar—it is my lifeline! Each task and commitment find their place within these systems, ensuring that nothing slips through the cracks. I meticulously update and synchronize these tools to navigate through deadlines and responsibilities with ease!

Updating calendars and priorities is important, but perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is the importance of open communication within my module teams. We’re all juggling different life circumstances and job requirements, but we’re also a supportive community. We discuss our personal commitments, family obligations, and work schedules from our very first meeting together. By understanding each other’s priorities, we can effectively collaborate and accommodate each other’s needs—knowing what is at the “top of their order.” Managing workload and navigating different team working styles require flexibility and understanding. We recognize that everyone has unique strengths and limitations, and we leverage those differences to achieve our collective goals.

Halle balances work and personal commitments with family.

Halle and family.

Lessons Learned

Through the M.S. in MIT Program, I’ve learned the power of prioritization and teamwork. Strategizing priorities (and not just your own) isn’t always easy, but it’s certainly rewarding. As I continue on this journey, I’m grateful for the invaluable lessons and experiences that have shaped me both personally and professionally.

Halle poses with members of her M.S. in MIT cohort.

Halle with her M.S. in MIT classmates.

Coming back to the original question I am often asked. Yes, the M.S. in MIT is indeed manageable. Regardless of the myriad responsibilities we have, you too can handle it with grace! With effective planning, organization, communication, and a supportive community, we can thrive amidst the chaos. So, to all my fellow students navigating strategic prioritization, remember: You’ve got this! And to our professors at UVA, I extend a heartfelt thank you for your unwavering support and dedication. Each M.S. in MIT student thanks you for sending us your priorities and deadlines long in advance so that we, too, can strategically prioritize!

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