Top 5 Tips for Avoiding Burnout When Studying for the USMLE

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • In the grueling world of USMLE preparation, there’s nothing more feared than burnout.

    We’ve all experienced it in one form or another. Maybe you were that frustrated medical student swearing at defenseless UWorld, because you just couldn’t seem to understand the heme synthesis pathway. Or maybe you were banging your head on your computer screen because you just couldn’t bear another internet connection failure.

    Burnout strikes quickly and the effects can be quite devastating. There is no good treatment. Prevention is key.

    As a full-time medical resident, senior medical tutor, and father of the most energetic one-year-old on this planet, I have often been asked how I maintain my sanity without openly weeping. Over time, I’ve devised this surefire set of rules to help you prevent burnout.

    The First Commandment: Mandatory Day Off

    Whether you’re preparing for an exam, tutoring for the USMLE, or embarking upon the masochistic path of residency, you must follow this simple rule: you need a day off!

    For all you heme/onc enthusiasts out there—yes, a day off means that it’s free of research. For you Step 1 studiers—no, doing a “small” block of UWorld questions does not mean that you took a day off. This day is critical to your psychological, intellectual, and professional well-being. Without it, your brain function starts to suffer, and it becomes tremendously difficult to retain critical information. Take a day off, do something fun—and be sure it’s non-medical!

    Rule #2: The Power of Family and Friends

    When you awaken from a nightmare reciting useless biostatistics equations, there will only be a handful of people in your life who will quiet you back to sleep. Don’t take these people for granted! Don’t miss out on family events, friends’ birthdays, or other fun events just because it will impact your almighty study schedule. Time management is something you can learn to do better, and schedules are meant to be bent, molded, and reformatted continuously—so make sure to pencil-in the people that really matter in your life.

    Rule #3: Healthy Lifestyle = Healthy Brain

    No— a Snickers bar, a half-eaten bag of Tostitos, and a 32-ounce coffee is not a dinner. You must dedicate time to 3 healthy meals daily. Thirty minutes of exercise is also something I consider to be a requirement. Physical health is critical to mental health. If you’re losing or gaining significant amounts of weight during your Step 1 studies, then you’re doing something wrong. Exams come and go, but your health will last a lifetime.

    Rule #4: Mental Exercise

    Keep the non-medical half of your brain active on a daily basis. Whether it’s reading/watching the news, watching a baseball game every night, mastering Sudoku puzzles, or immersing yourself in Fantasy Sports statistics, do something you love on a daily basis. Your brain needs multiple forms of stimuli to retain its health. “All business all day” is not a very sustainable life motto. Coddle your inner child. Get your game and fun on.

    The Final Rule: Stress Management Techniques

    Stress in life is as inevitable as NYC traffic. You can’t accomplish much when you’re already frustrated and annoyed. Develop creative ways to manage your stress and anxiety: online shopping, Instagram’ing semi-comatose selfies, meditating, or playing fetch with your dog are just a few examples. Even five minutes of relaxation can make the next several hours more productive. Sometimes, all your brain needs is a small distraction to get you back on track.

    In the end, you’ll find your own way to retain mental health. Follow these five rules, and I guarantee you’ll be more equipped to avoid the horrors of burnout when it matters the most.