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Time Management Strategies for Med Students

  • by Lauren Claus
  • Jan 02, 2022
  • Reviewed by: Amy Rontal

Level up your time management skills and improve your ability to balance competing demands and tasks.

If you’re a pre-medical or medical student, improving your time management strategies won’t just help you balance your life right now as a student, but also as a future physician managing various demands and tasks at any given time. Here are a few ways to improve your time management skills now, so you can become a more effective and efficient physician in the future!

Prioritization

Effective time management doesn’t just help you finish tasks; it helps you finish the right tasks at the right time. When you start preparing to better manage your time, don’t simply write down the tasks you need to accomplish—instead, categorize tasks by when they need to be finished. Write down tasks you need to accomplish within different spans of time: a week, two weeks, a month, two months, a year…

Critically evaluate each task on that list. Are any tasks time-sensitive and important? (Plan to do those first.) Are any tasks extraneous? (Consider whether they need to be tackled at all.) Take this opportunity to also write down your broad goals for yourself. Where would you like to be in one month, six months, and one year? What do you need to get there? Are there any personal obligations that may emerge along the way? Reframe those obstacles as goals to work toward.

Redefining tasks

Many tasks during college and medical school are long-term responsibilities. On a given Tuesday of your preclinical medical school curriculum, you may have many responsibilities on your mind—a volunteer shift you need to attend on Thursday, a cardiology exam on Friday, a clinical skills exam in two weeks, a research project with an IRB deadline in a month, and your Step 1 exam in four months.

After organizing these responsibilities according to their deadline, decide when you will deal with each responsibility. It may be perfectly fine to only attend your volunteer shift and prepare for your cardiology exam for the rest of this week, as long as you set a specific time and date to study for the clinical skills exam (maybe this Saturday afternoon), when you will work on the IRB (maybe this weekend and next week), and how you are approaching a high-stakes exam like studying for Step 1.

When planning your schedule, refine your long-term projects into smaller, action-oriented goals. For example, segment the goal of passing your Step 1 into separate, achievable actions, such as: 1) finishing two passes through a Step 1 question bank and 2) learning the content of the First Aid review book. While you likely aren’t able to quantify exactly how much time you need to finish the thousands of questions in your question bank, you can estimate by dividing the number of practice questions by the number of days you have left. Then, use this goal number of questions per day to most effectively plan your study schedule.

When planning your schedule, refine your long-term projects into smaller, action-oriented goals.

Time blocking

In addition to retrospectively organizing how you will accomplish certain milestones in the future, you can prospectively organize how you will spend individual hours of individual days. Keep your system simple! Whether you use an online calendar such as Google Calendar, a physical planner, or a sticky note a day, be sure that your time management system is portable, easily accessible, and efficient.

If you keep your to-do list in a document in your laptop’s hard drive, it won’t help you when an afternoon clinic appointment is canceled and you find yourself with a free hour in the middle of your busy neurology clerkship. Likewise, if you spend thirty minutes color coding your schedule each Sunday, you may be wasting thirty minutes of valuable relaxation that helps you approach the upcoming week with renewed vigor.

Creating external systems that foster internal focus

If you struggle with focusing, change your environment so that your surroundings work for you, instead of against you. If you’re studying for Step 1, consider taping a few practice questions to the wall in front of your desk to remind you of your goal to approach similar questions on test day with confidence. If your phone distracts you, consider turning off all unnecessary notifications and instead scheduling regular reminders with your daily tasks on your phone’s calendar.

Acknowledging your emotions

Although we often think of timing and tasks in factual ways, time management coexists with our emotions; we feel stressed under pressure and joy when we finally accomplish our goals. More broadly, effectively using a to-do list doesn’t involve plowing through tasks with minimal effort simply to cross off items; rather, it involves using your to-do list as a strategic tool to help you focus your energy and productive time in the most useful way. Reframe tasks you “need to do” as tasks that you “get to do” because you’re taking an interesting class or participating in an initiative you’re passionate about.

Although it’s helpful to frame time management in a consciously positive way, challenges will arise and you may feel overwhelmed or worried. When anxiety arises, it’s important to acknowledge the experience and make a conscious decision to adjust your schedule with an unplanned break (or choose to keep going). Keep in mind that daily goals are not fixed obstacles; they are flexible ideas that exist in your imagination and can adapt to the challenges that arise.