When It Comes To Studying In Medical School, The Key Is: 100% On, 100% Off

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Winter is here. Days are shorter and many of us are finding ourselves getting through the day, through the week, without seeing daylight. It is during this time of the year that morale can fall as low as the wind chill. Luckily, many of us had the holidays on our side, which brought with them a time for reflection, a moment to breathe, and hopefully, at least a day or two off. But now what?

    Getting through medicine can be tough, especially when you are working 6.5 days per week. It can turn itself into a grind, making us feel like our lives outside the hospital are non-existent.

    It is times like these that make it so important to ensure that when we are off, we are 100% off. Likewise, when we are working or studying, we must give 100% of ourselves that purpose. 

    It is a difficult switch to flip, but the closer you come to approaching these extremes, the greater joy and success you will find in both realms.

    I received this advice right around the time that ERAS applications were due.

    It came from an amazing mentor of mine who had the superpower to do it all. He was an incredibly esteemed attending, the department vice chair, and a mentor to countless students. Somehow, on top of this, he was able to produce literally hundreds of publications, and had a satisfying home life with a wife and a child waiting for him at the end of his busy days. I was dumbfounded by his ability to find 30+ hours in every day when other attendings were frazzled by clinical duty and had far less interest in teaching and mentoring medical students.

    “How do you do it?” I asked him.

    “Give yourself completely to your work when you are working, and free yourself completely from it when you are not.”

    It sounded simple and un-profound. But after letting his advice set in for a few days, I realized how much of our lives exist somewhere in between these states, negatively impacting both our work and home lives. How can you provide exemplary patient care while browsing for Christmas presents in another window? How can you study effectively if you know that as soon as you finish this question block, you will grant yourself a mini-reward and scroll through the latest instagrams. How can you be a good husband / wife / girlfriend / boyfriend / friend if you are giving 25% of your mind to a textbook on your lap, and only 75% to the movie you agreed to watch with them? Everyone suffers when you try to straddle the line between your school and work duties and your outside obligations.

    Now, before you sound off and say that you simply don’t have the time to employ this practice, and have no choice but to pack everything into your limited time, please realize that this isn’t a mandate. You can and should spend your time however you see fit, and no one can assimilate your actions and values better than yourself. I simply ask that you exercise a little mindfulness. Be honest with yourself and make sure that you are not pulling yourself in too many directions at any given time.

    We can even take this idea one step farther: when you are diligently working on your Step 1 or 2 prep, don’t bounce back and forth between your clinical duties and quick short blocks of questions.

    Your patients and your studying will both be negatively affected. Instead, save your mental energy. Carve out the time for a devoted study block at home and give yourself fully to your patients when they deserve all of your attention.

    In this age of remote access, multiple browser windows, and access to the world’s greatest compendium of knowledge in your pocket, creating this separation is all the more difficult, yet increasingly important. Practicing the art of doing one thing at a time can help you increase efficiency, avoid burnout, and ultimately perform better in every aspect of your life. I recommend that you keep this ideal close to you and try to identify spots in your life where you can give more of yourself to the singular task at hand. Your patients, your family, your friends, and your brain will thank you.