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Overcoming Procrastination in Medical School

If you’re a medical student reading this article, there probably is something you should be studying right now that you’re not. Let’s talk about procrastination in med school!

Medical students represent some of the most accomplished and academically decorated members of our society, yet a surprising number of them report that procrastination routinely impairs their ability to achieve the goals they set for themselves in medical school.

The etiology of procrastination differs across personality and learning types but the consequences are consistent including disappointing scores in class and on board exams, unnecessary anxiety, poor sleep patterns and self-care, and countless others.

How to Overcome Procrastination in Med School:

1. Track your time.

Humans are notoriously bad at estimating time accurately. Time flies when you’re having fun, and for most medical students, it crawls when you’re trying to nail down all those enzymes involved in gluconeogenesis.

Many medical students find themselves frustrated when their academic performance is not improving despite countless hours spent in the library or in front of textbooks.

However, these frustrations are often based on the faulty perception that ten hours sitting in the campus library equates to ten hours of focused learning. Factor in two or three 15 minute conversations with your friends, a 45 minute walk to the cafeteria for lunch, a 20 minute coffee break, 15 minutes looking up that cool new resource your friend mentioned in your earlier conversation, and two (or three or eight) 10 minute “breaks” to see what’s new on Facebook or Twitter… well, you get the picture.

Before you know it, your ten hour day devolved into seven or six or sometimes even fewer hours of focused learning. Take a few days to objectively document how much time you are actually dedicating to your studies. Set a timer and be honest with yourself about your time input. You might be surprised at how much procrastination is costing you throughout the day.

2. Set realistic goals and schedule breaks.

Once you have an accurate sense of your baseline time input, set a goal for how much time you would like to dedicate to your learning each day.

Build a schedule that incorporates frequent, short breaks and commit to staying on track. During dedicated study period, you should plan to invest 10-12 hours each day, not including breaks.

Make sure to schedule a few “marathon days” during the academic year to build up your stamina so that you can hit the ground running when dedicated study period comes around. If you have not invested the time to build up the mental endurance necessary for your dedicated study period, you are going to be extremely vulnerable to procrastination when the time comes to start putting in those long hours before Step 1.

3. Target your Kryptonite.

It is extremely important to develop insight into environmental triggers that set off a cycle of procrastination for you and then establish clear rules to manage those triggers.

Do those few minutes to check in on Twitter have the tendency to turn into two hours lost down an internet rabbit hole? You may need to consider having a friend change your Twitter password and hold it hostage until Step 1 is over.

Does that quick hello to your best friend studying a few desks away in the library generally escalate to an hour-long discussion about how stressful medical school is right now? Schedule a coffee date with your friend to vent and plan to study in a different part of the building.

Did one 30 minute sitcom on Netflix turn into an all day binge? Tell your parents to change their password (you may need to show them how). Identify the triggers that you know are going to tempt you to procrastinate and be ruthless in overcoming them.

4. Seek out accountability and get help.

Many medical students understandably are overwhelmed by the vastness of the material to cover and soothe their anxiety by procrastinating, a strategy which only serves to provoke more anxiety in the future.

Recruiting a trusted mentor, academic advisor, or tutor to check in with will help you stay accountable to your goals and study program. Plan to check in with your mentor at least once a week to let him or her know how well you are sticking to your schedule.

On a more serious note, for some students, procrastination can be a manifestation of clinical anxiety or depression. If you have any concerns at all that your mental health could be at the root of your procrastination, seek out a trusted counselor or physician right away to discuss resources and options for treatment.

5. Embrace active learning and crystal clear goals.

Ambiguous, poorly defined goals are to procrastination as gasoline is to fire. If you create a study schedule with tasks such as “study GI in First Aid” or “do micro flashcards”, you are setting yourself up for procrastination. All goals should have an active component and a clear end point.

For example, instead of planning to “study GI in First Aid.” try “do twenty UWorld GI questions and annotate First Aid for all of my incorrect responses.” If a task has a clear end point, it will be much easier to start and finish it.

6. Reframe your studying.

I promise that you will learn many things during your second year of medical school that you will not think about even one time after earning your terminal degree. You will study drugs you will never once prescribe, diseases you will never once manage, and a mountain of mundane, uninteresting facts that you will immediately forget forever 15 minutes after leaving the test center on your exam day.

Cultivating the motivation to get out of bed early to go to the library and sit at a desk for 12 hours to learn all of this information can tempt even the hardest working among us to procrastinate. However, the monumental task of getting through your first two years of medical school often becomes much easier if you think of those hours of studying not as wasted time but as an act of service to your future patients.

By setting up a plan to succeed in your first and second years of medical school, you are in some ways participating in your first act of patient care – preparing yourself to take care of sick people in the safest, most thorough way possible.

Even if it’s hard to shut off Netflix for the sake of the Krebs Cycle, it is much easier to shut off Netflix to perform an act of service for the people you want to take care of one day. You would certainly think twice about checking Facebook while listening to a patient present a history of her illness. Try to think twice about checking Facebook while studying the information that might just help you figure out what’s wrong with her and how you can help. Keep the big picture in mind.

If you are a medical student struggling with procrastination, you’re not alone. However, with some insight and planning, you can take steps to make your studying efficient, effective, and productive.