Between school, work, and personal obligations, staying focused and positive in an executive MBA program is a challenge, but it’s not impossible if you have the right mindset. When I initially began the Global Executive MBA program, I had to immediately adjust the priorities in my life. On top of my full-time job at The Container Store and social events like birthdays and weddings with friends and family (I have a big Persian family!), the addition of travel, classes, and schoolwork quickly became stressful. Here are a few tools I use to stay focused and positive in school, at work, and at home.

Find Your Non-Negotiables

A key part of staying focused is to have constants in your life that anchor you. To do that, I keep a set of “non-negotiables,” whether it’s an activity to get me moving in the morning or finding distraction-free time to spend with family each week. It’s important to plan around these non-negotiables, which means knowing what I can’t miss out on.

It’s also important to check in on these non-negotiables as they often ebb and flow throughout our lives. For example, one of the main reasons I decided to get my MBA was to network and create strong relationships with my classmates. Given the few residencies we have together, I decided that spending time with them was more important than my morning workout routine. So, if I ended up staying out too late socializing with my friends, I wouldn’t feel as bad if I skipped the gym. Even as situations change, remember to find what’s most important to you and build around your non-negotiables.

Sara Lavi with her Global Executive MBA classmates stand near a sign in Santiago, Chile

Envision Your Goals

Creating a “vision board” in my mind also helps me stay focused on my goals. Some might choose to put these goals down on paper, but I prefer to imagine and replay scenarios in my mind. By choosing a few goals to focus on and imagining what it would look like to achieve them, they become that much closer to reality.

This is something I was doing subconsciously at first—like envisioning myself practicing a performance when I was a competitive dancer as a kid. My dance teacher once told me that if you can see yourself doing something in your head then you can do it in real life; all it takes is practice. I’ve carried this lesson with me ever since.

Lean on Your Support System

It’s important to have someone to talk to when you need help staying positive, and support systems can look different for everyone. For me, it’s my family. When I need to vent, my dad is one of the first people I call. He is always there to help me break out of a negative mindset with an inspirational quote—sometimes in Farsi—though these don’t always make much sense in English! Whether it’s a family member, a friend, or a mentor, think about the support system around you and make sure you have someone to turn to when you need a pick-me-up.

Use the “Pitchfork” Tool

Lastly, the “pitchfork” tool is another method I use to reframe my mindset and stay positive. There are times in life when someone may upset you, yet their actions were never meant to be personal. If someone upsets me, I first review the situation and think of three reasons for their actions that have nothing to do with me. By understanding these possible reasons, I can choose one that removes my own emotions from the equation and makes me feel better about the situation.

For example, Suzy asks Emily to hang out one night, but Emily says she needs to stay in and babysit her niece. Emily’s sister then ends up canceling her plans, not needing a babysitter after all. Emily gets a last-minute invitation to a party and decides to attend now that she’s free. Suzy sees Emily’s post on social media and gets upset that Emily lied to her—when in fact she didn’t. Here are three reasons Suzy could think of to remove herself from the situation and help her not be upset:

  1. Emily’s babysitting plans changed at the last minute.
  2. Emily went to the party after babysitting.
  3. Emily forgot she already had plans to go out after babysitting.

These are just some of the tools I use to keep me focused and positive in an ever-demanding world. We all have busy lives, both at the start of an MBA journey or nearing the end, and I hope these tools can help others as much as they’ve helped me.