Time Management in Medical School

“Medical school” and “free time” do not go together. They’re almost as bad a pair as “acetaminophen” and “binge drinking.” However, I’ve learned in my last 2 years that to work smarter, you have to be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods. I’ve pondered how to best organize your time so that you can squeeze in more time for fun (as long as that fun doesn’t include liver failure) and less sleepless hours. 

Stick with what works for YOU. Everyone has a different learning style. Figuring out what kind of learner you are is a large part of what makes your first semester of medical school challenging. Some people are visual learners and should use charts and drawings. Others are auditory learners and prefer listening to lectures or online videos. Others read from textbooks and take notes. Others learn best by doing question banks and flashcards. Whichever learner you are, you should take advantage of it. Though a method might have worked for you in the undergrad or even M1, you may have to change how you study to get the most material committed to memory. If you’re not absorbing anything from your optional lectures, don’t attend. If you can’t focus on a group study, don’t bother with it! This point can also relate to the time of day (early morning vs late-night studiers) and environment (library vs. home vs. busy coffee shop). Don’t give up on a resource just because your classmates don’t like it. I stopped wasting my time using resources that didn’t stick in my mind. 

Combine two tasks into one. If you’re strapped for time, think of ways that you can spend your time most efficiently. I have a 2-hour total commute every day, and I used that time to listen to Step 1 lectures and podcasts. When I run on the treadmill, I watch Sketchy videos. I keep pharmacology flashcards in my bag and use them during breaks in my day (like waiting for lecture to start). It’s easy to waste a half-hour on your phone during a break, but all of that wasted time adds up when you’re preparing for an exam or Step 1. If multitasking is not effective for you, however, then only focus on one task at a time. It’s better to do one thing well vs. two things halfway. 

Hold yourself accountable. Some people swear by a daily to-do list and feel a great sense of accomplishment in checking off each item. Others use a Pomodoro method of studying, in which they study in 25-minute blocks with breaks interspersed. A teacher once told me, “If you finish what you need to do, you’ll always have time to do what you want to do. But if you do what you want to do, you might not have time to finish all that you need to do.” Give yourself a reward after a certain amount of studying, like watching half of This is Us after finishing a block of questions. I like to divide my tasks into “do ASAP,” “do in the next day or two,” and “do sometime this week/month.” At the same time, it’s important not to become a slave to your schedule. It’s human to fall behind and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. Meditate, reflect on how you can do better, and hit the ground running tomorrow.

It’s okay to say “no.” As medical students, we are natural people pleasers and like to spread ourselves thin. You have to remember, though, that academics should always come first. Extracurriculars should not be a source of stress for you, and if you’re taking on too much, there is no shame in giving up a position or two. I learned this lesson when I stepped down from a leadership position in my first year. In the same vein (ha!), sometimes you may need to miss family or friend functions to study. Although you will feel guilty, remember that this is a temporary time in your life and those who love you will understand. I’m fortunate to have a part-time job as a tutor for high school students, but they understand that I can’t take on any jobs in the days before a test. By managing my time efficiently, I’m managing their time efficiently and keeping them from procrastinating! 

Utilize “unconscious study time.” Yes, taking breaks counts as studying! If you’re working every waking hour, your brain has no time to absorb and process the things that you have learned. This is why it’s important to take meaningful study breaks or even complete days off. Don’t feel guilty for not being productive all the time. Some find it best to incorporate a designated fun time on their schedules and force themselves to go out, see friends, and exercise. Taking time for yourself is the best way to combat burnout. During my dedicated Step 1 study time, I spent my midday breaks doing yoga from YouTube videos or calling friends.