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The Secret to Balancing Multiple Activities in Medical School

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

Many people, including family members, students, and even doctors, will tell you in medical school there’s no time for anything else. Some of my classmates have families, manage businesses, and maintain part-time jobs while in medical school and have found a way to make their lifestyles work. As a team USA fencer, I go to practice 4–5 times a week and I constantly travel to national and international competitions while managing my studies. While adding to your plate in med school will make things more difficult, anything is possible with the right time management skills. Here's how to do it.

Schedule Everything

Scheduling is the most important thing I do to make my lifestyle work. Not only do I plan every day by the hour (sometimes half hour) but I also plan my weeks, months, and years far in advance because I have to make sure my competitions and rotations/research deadlines don’t overlap (to the best of my ability).

Funny story: I just met with my old teammate to discuss the fencing season. She asked about the timeline of future competitions and I rattled off the dates of the next five competitions like they were my own birthday. Strict scheduling holds you accountable for activities you should be doing like hitting the gym but can never seem to get to because you “got stuck studying.” There are times studying will take precedence and everything else has to wait. Overall, scheduling helps me realize where I need to be and what I need to complete each day.

Be Efficient

Step 1 is creating the schedule. Step 2 is sticking to it and eliminating as many distractions as possible. What motivates me to be as efficient as possible? It’s pretty simple. I don’t have a choice. My fellow researchers can go home after the work day and read up on research articles or keep cranking out papers. My competitors are training twice a day and I’m only training once. 

I don’t have time to get sidetracked. If I don’t complete my weekly activities, I’ll be behind for next week. The same thing with fencing. If I have three weeks to perfect a new action before the next world cup, I have to utilize every single bout in practice to the best of my ability. This means I have to maximize practice time and focus on every bout to get the most out of my time.

If it’s hard for you to be efficient — you sit down to read a chapter and an hour later you have one section finished because you’ve been on Facebook the whole time — start with baby steps. Set a goal to work for one hour straight with no distractions and then take a 15 minute break. 

Remember you’re human! After working nonstop for four hours, who doesn’t want to have a conversation with your classmates in the study area? It’s easy for that quick chat to turn into a 15 minute conversation. Don’t be too hard on yourself for slipping through the cracks occasionally. The goal is to steadily increase efficiency and reward yourself when you’ve completed little tasks or conquered something big. Becoming efficient is no easy task but once you see the benefits there’s no better feeling!

Check Yourself

So you set all your goals, start following your schedule, but are you making progress? Are you in a place where you can realistically achieve your goals? Reflection takes a lot of maturity. Besides determining what actually needs to be done to reach your goal, you have to be honest about what you’re doing to match that. 

If you have Step 1 coming up, how much should you be studying? While you say you’re studying the right amount of time, are you getting side tracked? Are you retaining all the information? Are you going through the motions or actually being productive?

It’s really important to reflect on your progress. Most importantly, be honest with yourself. Lying to yourself only prolongs your progress and stunts your growth. 

If you’re doing everything possible and things aren’t working out, reach out to your support system, attendings, or deans to get their feedback. If you are following your system and reaching your goals then keep crushing it!

Keep At It

You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. – Denzel Washington

When you set a goal, there are going to be setbacks that test your dedication and strength. Failure is inevitable, but knowing that doesn’t stop it from hurting. Sometimes it may feel like it’s taking unnecessarily long to reach the objective but don’t focus on how long you think it should take. Focus on learning from each mistake and use the obstacles you encounter to make you into a stronger individual. Don’t be afraid of failure because if you don’t fail you’re not even trying.

Another Way to Say Sacrifice: Prioritize

I hardly ever see my friends. When I first started competing in med school I missed out on everything and it really tore me up. I felt like I was always missing out, like I was a bad friend and a bad family member. I told my best friend I was sorry I always missed his birthday because we had a World Cup the same weekend every year. Like a real friend he said “You do whatever you need to do to achieve your goals. I’ll be here whenever you need me.” You can’t be everywhere. You can’t do everything. In order to truly reach your dreams you have to focus on the necessary activities and cut out everything else. This might mean missing birthdays, weddings or even cutting people out of your life if they aren’t supportive. At the end of the day you’re going to have to make sacrifices and you should never feel guilty for making them.

Kamali Thompson is a MD/MBA student completing a research year in orthopedic surgery and will be applying for the 2020 match. She is a team USA fencer and 2020 Olympic hopeful. She is also an active blogger on her website, Saber & A Stethoscope, and active on twitter (@Kamali_Thompson) and Instagram (@dr.mali.mallz). She is also a 2018 - 2019 Doximity author.

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