3 Time Management & Organization Tips to Get You Through Med School

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Ever ask a medical student what the most difficult aspect of med school is?

    Chances are you’ve been told that it’s the amount of material you have to master. Perhaps you’ve even heard a graphic metaphor to describe it, such as likening it to drinking out of a fire hose. And what are we told is the key to success when faced with such a Herculean task? Time management.

    Our own esteemed Katherine Seebald, who is about to join the ranks of the USC Trojans as a medical student this fall — and who, like Hermione Granger, excels at pretty much anything — asked me the following question recently:

    “What were the three biggest things you learned re: time management and organization that helped you in med school?”

    By the way, that’s verbatim. On a related note, she and/or I may think and talk in the form of powerpoint slides and Buzzfeed lists. Here’s my answer:

    1. Schedule Everything

    And I do mean everything. Every little thing you do in your day: put it down with a corresponding amount of time. Eating, sleeping, hygiene, working out, watching TV, hanging out with friends—everything. Figure out how much time you need for the activities you love and need, and then make room for them. If you don’t make them a priority, and if you don’t carve out time for them, other obligations will crowd them out, and they just won’t happen.

    On a related note, you can also group the activities into categories and see what the distribution of your time says about you and your priorities. It might be eye-opening!

    2. Balance Your Time

    Balance your days and your weeks. Balance every study block. Remember the 5 second rule from Examkrackers’ methods for CARS on the MCAT? If you don’t schedule breaks, your body and mind will take them on their own, likely when you should be focusing. Same concept applies to longer periods of studying.

    A friend of mine taught me a trick for studying for the USMLE exams, when mere mortals such as me struggle to stay focused all day: “40 minutes on, 20 minutes off. All day.”

    That is, go ahead and study for 15 hours for USMLE Step 1, but in every hour, study for 40 minutes, and then do something else for 20. Whatever else you need to do along with studying, schedule it into those twenty minute breaks. Video games, going to the bathroom, making or eating food, a quick workout, a bit of TV, and so on.

    Which reminds me of another maxim worth living by: Work when you work, play when you play.

    When you’re supposed to be getting work done, that’s where your mind should be. Don’t text or surf the web. Go to the bathroom beforehand. Be well-rested and well-fed so you have the capability to focus. And when you’re taking a break, don’t feel guilty about it. Remind yourself that you’ve earned that break and that you and your future patients need for you to take that break, to be healthy and well-rounded. Don’t think about the work you could or should (remember the saying: “Don’t should on yourself”) be doing when you’re supposed to be relaxing, because then you’re neither getting work done, nor getting any benefit from your diversion.

    3. Develop Healthy Habits BEFORE Starting Medical School

    Ever see doctors and nurses eat at work? More likely than not, they look like the subjects of a Super Size Me-type documentary. They’re probably not doing the things they’re telling their hypertensive patients to do. If you know you should work out, cook for yourself, read for pleasure, do yoga, go running, spend time with friends, loved ones and your significant other, and you don’t do those things—and you’re not yet in medical school—you’d better develop those good habits now.

    Medical school will be more demanding than most anything you’ve ever done. If you think you care about something or someone, medical school will test that belief and reveal to you the reality of things. So pick up good habits before medical school. Become passionate about them. Then, hold on for dear life—literally—as those habits will be important for preserving your humanity and keeping you from being burnt out. There’s always a little more studying that you could do, a few more clubs and research opportunities you could add to your CV.

    Whatever your other obligations—time with your significant other, a night out with friends, an appointment with a treadmill—chances are that, “Sorry, but medical school is really busy/hard” will be an acceptable reason not to do it (though, unless you get placed on a grand jury, the same likely won’t apply to jury duty). It’s on you to realize that while there will always be room to do more academically, and while your faculty, mentors, and peers will always push you in that direction, no one else will be on your case about getting enough sleep, having a life, and taking care of your health. If you don’t make time for you, no one else will.

    Everyone knows that you can’t love or take care of others if you don’t do the same for yourself, but that’s easier said than done. Make balanced time management your homework, the way you will with everything else you do in medical school. It’s the most important assignment you’ll ever complete.