Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
While I was a medical scribe in Texas, I had many conversations with doctors about what medical school is like. I vividly remember one instance where a physician responded to the question with, “Medical school is like a course in time management. You’ll really learn how to manage your time and fit everything in as a med student.” Below, I give seven of the most useful tips I wish I had known before entering med school. They are not in any particular order, nor are they reserved for only medical students: these suggestions are for anyone looking to improve their overall productivity.
1. Lists, lists, lists
I use a free app (Swipes) to make a to-do list every day, which is on my phone since it is glued to my pocket. Daily to-do lists are helpful for me as running reminders of necessary tasks and reduce my general anxiety over forgetting something. Recurring tasks, such as completing QBank questions or paying bills can be programmed to repeat to help you keep track of important daily/monthly activities.
Even if writing them is a chore, grocery lists prevent me from spending inordinate amounts of time walking from one end of the grocery store to the other as I remember things in (literally) the most inconvenient order. Especially when you have a lot on your mind, lists are a necessity for productive living.
2. Make spreadsheets your friend
Before I began medical school, I only used spreadsheets to log my workouts. Once I started using spreadsheets to study, I saw the possibilities spreadsheets hold. With apps like Google Sheets, you can access and edit spreadsheets anywhere.
My personal favorite use of a spreadsheet has been for my student loans: I include my budgets, interest rates, fees, etc. and by linking cells together, have a calculator (that I understand and can modify) and record for each year of school. Conditional formatting can help your sheets change colors and alert you to specific tasks, or have seasonally-themed spreadsheets.
3. Clean up the clutter
While this statement is useful for rooms, cars, and lockers, it is just as useful for life. I grew up playing video games and they still hold a special place in my heart; but when course loads get tough, I make an effort to objectively look at how I spend my time and partition it appropriately. By removing some unnecessary clutter, you can reduce rushing from task to task and spend time focusing on performing each one well, maximizing your productivity for the day.
Time management is one of the most important tools I am developing as a med student. I generally keep the same routine, but there is always something that comes up whether a meeting, a lecture, or a chore. Giving yourself wiggle room in your schedule allows you to partition your time so you are not thrown off by a closed study room or an added meeting. Personally, I try to complete my to-do list as soon as possible during the day to give myself more time later in the day for other miscellaneous tasks.
If you have no idea where to begin your schedule, just start listing approximate times you perform tasks throughout the day, continuing the list for a few days. Once you think you have enough material, look over the list and try to find some trends. Records like these can make you more aware of your time management and help learn what a feasible attention span for you may be.
4. Find a constructive hobby, or nap
The time you have to yourself becomes even more valuable as you get busier. Constructive hobbies maximize your time because they allow you to continue learning or improving yourself even when you are not studying. That does not mean every hobby needs to advance you on your path to the Nobel Prize, but learning how to cook, a new language, or exercising can improve you as a person and still give you plenty of enjoyment on breaks. My hobbies frequently came up on my own med school interviews, and I have heard the same from others as well, so embrace them!
Giving your mind a break during busy schedules is crucial to retaining your levels of efficiency (and sanity). Breaks which include your hobbies can keep your morale up, but sometimes just taking a nap or going for a walk will recharge your focus batteries enough to return to the grind.
5. Make use of your resources
Many worries and questions I would have agonized over in the past now are answered with a simple email. If you have questions about your finances, ask your financial aid advisor. The worst-case scenario is that they refer you to someone who can help! It is very likely that other students have had the same questions, or been in a similar position, as you. Students may be more approachable than faculty or at least refer you to faculty who areapproachable. Just a word of encouragement from someone who has been in your shoes may help you persevere.
On another note, use the technology you already have at your disposal. I carry my phone with me at all times, so it is perfect for having running brainstorming notes, my monthly budget, my to-do list, my schedule, my calendar, etc. Fortunately, the makers of these phones have learned that phones do get lost/broken, so having your information linked to the internet through a cloud is very helpful, should you drop your phone in a toilet or jump into the Pacific to save a drowning baby seal.
6. Read (useful) books
Sometimes I feel like I need to reinvent the wheel every time I start a new module, approach my future finances, or consider specialties. But I am certainly not the first person in my position! There is a wealth of books on many different subjects in the healthcare field. I recently finished The White Coat Investor book and much of my anxiety about my financial future was abated, thanks to his intelligent explanations. Even if it seems tough to fit in reading a book while you are in the midst of studies, you may be surprised how relaxing reading for pleasure can be when compared to studying Netter’s or reviewing organic synthesis pathways.
7. Be patient with yourself
Healthcare professionals are trained, in many ways, to be perfectionists. Much of education, in my experience, is learning about yourself and how to adapt to new classes and situations. Learning takes patience. You (like me) will probably not get it perfectly right the first time. You have persevered this far in your career so far; keep it up!
The path into the healthcare is certainly difficult, but prepares you for a demanding career. Many of the lessons you will learn during your college years and in medical/graduate school are important contributions to your success in the future. Each challenge presents a learning opportunity to grow and develop into a better student and individual. With practice, reflection, and determination, you will be able to improve your productivity and move one step closer on the path to becoming the best healthcare professional you can become!
Raised in Wyoming, Jacob Adney, MD, is a third year resident physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. He completed medical school at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, where he earned a Distinction in Medical Education. His research included analyzing the effects of smoking on myocardium.