Mindfulness and USMLE Prep

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Introduction

    Last week at synagogue I heard one of the greatest sermons of my life. We were in the ten days of repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day of the year. For the gentiles among our readership, during this time it’s customary for the rabbi to give a special sermon that inspires congregants to improve themselves in the coming year.  

    The title of this particular talk “Be the Best Version of Yourself: The Torah’s Prescription for Mindfulness in a Mindless World” caught me by surprise. As a physician, my gut reaction to language like this can sometimes be incredulity. “Am I in a synagogue or a yoga class?” I thought to myself. “Is this a religious sermon or a new age lecture about meditation and becoming one with the universe?”

    As it turns out, it was both and more. And it taught me an incredible lesson about life that I believe applies especially to the USMLE.

    Mindfulness Makes Everything Better

    The sermon itself was a mix of traditional Jewish sources, articles from publications including JAMA and the New York Times, and mindfulness authors such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who brought Buddhist meditation practice into the twenty-first century. The main idea was that being mindful of what we’re doing in the present moment makes everything better. It improves our physical health, our happiness, our relationships, and even our spiritual lives. In short, the past and the future are only important in how they relate to our present moment and how they influence what we should do with it.

    Our rabbi spoke about a team of Harvard researchers who found that almost 50% of the time people are thinking about things other than what they’re currently doing. This is what makes people feel like they’re going through life “on autopilot.” When we don’t think about what we’re doing, we make bad decisions. Worse yet, life passes us by and we’re more likely to be depressed and anxious. By dwelling on the past or thinking too much about the future, we miss the present – and later regret what we could have done with those lost moments.

    What Does Mindfulness Have to Do With the USMLE?

    This all seems nice, but how does it relate to the USMLE? From my hundreds of hours helping students prepare for their exams, I can tell you that the practice of mindfulness is one of the most important tools you can utilize as you study.

    Distraction may be the single most common barrier to success I see in my work as a tutor. I’ve had students leave their phones on while studying, go on Facebook, have excuses for why they haven’t finished the homework or followed the schedule I provided them, decide to use resources beyond what I recommended, get caught up in family matters that aren’t pressing the list goes on and on. The common theme is that they aren’t living in the moment and giving their all to the singular task in front of them.

    When it comes to preparing for the USMLE, multitasking is a myth. If your study schedule says to spend the first two hours of the day reading Pathoma and watching the videos, then that’s all you should be thinking about. Nothing else should be on your mind. Not the questions you did last night or the questions you’ll do later. Not walking your dog or going to the gym. And when you are walking your dog or at the gym, be mindful of what you’re doing then as well. There’s no need to think about the questions you did two hours ago. If you spent the allotted time on them and gave them your full attention, that should be enough.

    Assuming you have a good plan in place, you shouldn’t be thinking about the actual exam while you’re studying. You shouldn’t be thinking about the exam you already took and failed or how you choked on the MCAT three or four years ago. All you should focus on is your assignment for the day.

    Actually, even that’s a mistake. Your entire focus should be on the task you’re completing at that very moment. If you trust the process, put the process on autopilot  rather than putting yourself on autopilot. I guarantee this will never hurt you.