How to balance school with lifestyle?


Now that you’re in medical school, you may not be at the very top of your class anymore.  This is OK!  Just focus on being the best YOU can be.  The pre-clinical phase of medical school is the perfect time to start utilizing proper time management and making sure you lead a well-balanced life.  You’re studying to become a DOCTOR, not just to ace the tests.  In addition to studying, you also need to be engaging in the clinical environment and developing your own professional niche.


When you start school, you will notice that your classmates are very similar to you in terms of being high-performers. You’ve spent your entire life up until this point being at the top of your class with some degree of comfort.  All of a sudden you’re standing in a class full of people who are ALL used to being at the top… EVERYONE is the best of the best or else they wouldn’t have been accepted into this medical school. Add to that the tidal wave of material coming your way that has to be learned, and the resulting dynamic is one where endless studying is possible. The question is, how much should you study?

The pre-clinical phase of medical school will be very busy, but students often have sufficient discretion to allocate the use of their time. Don’t fall into the trap of studying into oblivion with no sense of boundary. Also, don’t fall into the trap of avoiding studying just because you can… Both of these behaviors involve you surrendering your intention to compulsions which are NOT helpful to you. Do take advantage of the opportunity at this stage of medical school to allocate how you spend your time intentionally. This will be a skill that will serve you all throughout life. Doctors are busy people. That’s not going to be a choice, but you CAN learn how to be busy/engaged on your own terms. It’s important to build this foundational life practice while you’re in medical school.


Learning as a professional…

Let’s start with the 24 hours that we have in a day. Normally, for adults working at jobs, the day is roughly split into thirds: 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest/sleep, and 8 hours for other things such as eating, playing, and watching “Game of Thrones.” So within a week, a person typically will work for about 40 to 60 hours. To view yourself in the professional lens at this stage may entail some expectations you have for yourself in terms of how much time you devote to learning.

Many older doctors I have talked to tell me they put in 70 to 80 hours per week as a medical student. You know…when they had to walk 20 miles to school in the snow going uphill. Is it OK to spend less than 40 hours? Well, that’s a personal choice, but you have to weigh that with the time and dedication that will be needed to become a good doctor.  Remember that you’re not just learning material so you can score the highest on the tests; you are learning material so you can better help your patients… The stakes are higher!

Let’s say that you accept that at this pre-clinical phase of learning, committing 40 to 60 hours per week to study is important… This is your JOB.  Let me repeat… your JOB is learning to be a doctor. What are those 40 to 60 hours actually composed of? The time that you are physically in class or are learning content is a part of that time. The time you spend reviewing material (a.k.a. studying) is also part of that time. However, there are two other things that you should be doing as part of those 40 to 60 hours per week as well…


Besides classes and studying…

One of those things is to take the opportunity to experience the clinical environment. There are often student-run clinics where students get to hone clinical skills through patient engagement, like taking a history and physical (H&P). There are also opportunities to shadow physicians (or other health professionals) to better understand the contexts of care. These experiences often allow students to become better learners of the basic science material by providing the relevant context(s) for professional application.

The second thing is to explore your professional niche. Where are your interests and passions? Don’t ignore them. Medicine is a huge place; whatever your interests are, you will find that niche that will make your practice of medicine meaningful and joyous as long as you are persistent.


A balanced life…

So basically the 40 to 60 hours that you’re “working” each week are spent attending classes, studying, engaging in the clinical environment, and developing a professional niche. What about outside of all that? What are you going to be doing during the other 108 to 128 hours per week? Obviously you’ll be resting/sleeping during some of this time, but you also need to have personal time for yourself in order to be well-balanced. You can’t study 24/7 and expect to have a balanced life!

The key to having a life outside of studying is to have well-defined intentions. Your time is going to be a limited resource. You must spend it on the things that matter most to YOU. What are the 3 to 5 things which bring you the most meaning or joy? Perhaps it’s reading fiction. Perhaps it’s playing soccer. Perhaps it’s cooking. Maybe it’s travelling… Whatever it is, take those things which are most important to you and lock them in. You may say, for instance, that throughout the upcoming year, no matter how busy school gets, you will take 2 hours a week to read a good (non-medical) book.  Allow yourself simple pleasures such as these!

This is an important practice to begin as a medical student. It will set you up later when the job is all-consuming, because you will have already learned to draw boundaries so you can live life on YOUR terms.