Balancing Professional School and Life

Professional school is hectic. Very hectic. Most programs require the dedication that is equivalent to a full-time job, at the very minimum. For example, some medical school requires daily attendance from 9AM to 5PM for classes. Afterwards, most students will still spend 2-3 hours in the library or studying at home. In total, most students spend 11-12 hours per day “at work” with study material during the first two years. The final clinical years, although they involve less reading and studying, are just as busy in the hospital and in the clinic, often taking 12-14 hours per day. With such a constant stream of high stress situations, it becomes very important to find ways to balance your work life with your personal life.

With so little time left for yourself in your typical day, your focus should be on making the most of your time so you can recharge and get yourself ready for future challenges. It is important to remember that everyone has their own preferences, so what one person perceives to be relaxing might just be dull, boring, or even stress inducing to someone else. For example, I love to go on Sunday drives as a way to disconnect. However, I have plenty of colleagues who hate driving, and their blood pressure would rise if the roads suddenly became crowded. Therefore, the list compiled below consists of suggestions that various counselors, life-coaches, and students have successfully used to achieve balance in their medical school careers.

Pursue something for the other parts of your brain

You have to engaged your brain for hours at a time everyday when you’re studying or in clinical rotation. As a result, many people simply want to turn off their brains when they get home or leave the clinic/hospital. However, you can still engage your brain without stressing it. According to a counselor at Western University in Pomona, your brain becomes tired when it encounters the same stimuli repeatedly; 12 hours of studying or 12 hours in clinic become repetitive very quickly. If you can stimulate your brain in other ways, you can stay alert and focused but still de-stress. An added benefit would be cultivation of other talents that make you more well-rounded and unique as a person.

Some suggestions include:

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  • Musical instruments
  • Visual Arts
  • Puzzles and Brain Teasers
  • Inventing
  • Composing written work

Exercise is a wonder drug

If you’re currently attending medical school or another health professions program, you have undoubtedly heard that exercise is indeed the cure for many things, including stress. Exercise improves memory, cardiopulmonary functions, metabolism, and decreases stress. According to many sources, you should ideally get 30 – 45 minutes of cardio activity per day. Exercise is likely to improve your performance on exams and in clinic. It increases alertness and improves mental balance. Some students have actually reported feeling less overwhelmed during exams when they are able to work out regularly before an exam. The best thing about exercise is you can do it concurrently with other activities, which means you can get a work-out in and still have some personal time afterwards. For example, Andrew, a fourth year medical student in southern California says he bought a basic exercise bike to use in his apartment. He sets up a portable table next to the bike and he can either type notes, read on his laptop or listen to lectures while he bikes. He is able to study as he normally would in the library, but also effortlessly get a 2 hour work out done every day along with studying. “For me, it was much more efficient than going to the gym and listening to lectures on my phone. Listening to lectures alone isn’t effective for me and I need to write notes in order to study properly. Having this set up accomplishes both. You don’t normally bring your laptop to the gym.”

Don’t Neglect Friends and Family

No matter how busy you are, you have to find time for friends and family. They provide much needed emotional support in your journey through medical and professional school. When you’re burned out, they can remind you of why you decided to embark on your journey to become a physician/healthcare provider. Setting a time to hang out with friends or visit family is incredibly valuable and can help reenergize you for what is ahead. You’ll be meeting hundreds of new people every week during clinical rotations and seeing a familiar face or hearing a familiar voice can be very uplifting.

Jamie, a 3rd year MD student from Arizona, said that she probably wouldn’t have gotten through her surgery rotation without calling her boyfriend almost daily. During a six week rotation where 24 hour overnight call happens every few days, just talking with a significant other, family or close friend for five minutes can help put you at ease and restore balance. You will be out of your comfort zone very often in medical and professional school and your friends and family can help bring you back to your comfort zone.

Reward Yourself 

It is important to give yourself frequent motivation. Many of my colleagues make it a priority to regularly see a movies on the weekend or go hiking or biking. Constantly give youself something to look forward to in your personal life and you’ll find additional energy when you feel overwhelmed. Counselors and coaches will tell you that it’s important to follow through with your reward. Otherwise, you may not able to convince yourself that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and you lose self-motivation along the way.

Giving yourself something to look forward to allows you to stay positive, even when facing adversity. For instance, Alex from UCSD recalls when he was constantly being asked questions from his attending physician in front of the group while on rounds. He couldn’t answer several of them and he felt embarrassed. He was also cursed at by several patients who didn’t want a student examining them. He recalled that he would look forward to going surfing on the weekends. No matter how bad things got while on rotations, just knowing that he had something to look forward to at the end of the week gave him energy and motivation. Kourtney, from UCLA, indulges in an affordable massage parlor every two weeks. Whatever you find enjoyment doing, make sure you give yourself enough of it as you go forward with your education and training.

Reach Out to Others When You Can’t Handle Something Yourself

Becoming a healthcare provider and working as one in practice is difficult. You are going to deal with things that you haven’t encountered and aren’t taught in books or lectures. You must be prepared to incorporate advice and assistance from other people as soon as you know you can’t handle something. The danger is trying to use your free and personal time to try and handle difficult situations yourself. You will end up burning yourself out and making your life more difficult. Your free time will not be spent on activities that re-energize you but on problems that wear you out even more.

Physicians are at an increased risk of depression and suicide due to the difficult and demanding nature of the job. Finding a balance between your work and personal life decreases the risk of both and ensures that you will have a long and fruitful career helping others and alleviating the mortality and morbidity of diseases. You owe it to yourself and to your patients to maintain a proper balance between your life and your work.

In Conclusion

It’s important to remember that not everyone reacts to a situation the same way. You need to have a clear understanding of how you react to challenges and adversity. You also need to know what relaxes you and what you want out of life. Knowing all this, you can better use the little bit of time you have to find a balance in your life. Many attending physicians whom I have spoken to offer very similar advice. Good habits start early. If you develop a balance between work and life during medical school, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to do the same when you get into practice. Being a physician is one of the most rewarding careers that you can embark on. However, in order to heal others throughout your long career, you must be able to find the balance between your work and your life.

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