College as a premed can be a grind. Between classes, labs, research, and activities, it can seem like four uninterrupted years of delayed gratification, all building up to that shining moment when you get into the medical school of your dreams (which, as your friends who are wage-earning college graduates will be happy to remind you, involves at least another four to seven years of delayed gratification).
With all that this path requires, finding the right work/life balance is a universal struggle. A year into medical school, I can’t say I’ve quite mastered that balance, nor do I expect I ever truly will. Work/life balance is a sort of dynamic equilibrium (shoutout to my chemistry nerds out there), with constantly changing external conditions and personal needs that always need reexamining. Still, along my own journey, I’ve discovered that the following five principles help me make better decisions about how to spend my time.
An important note: just as you should with any article or research paper, read this post critically, so you can decide for yourself what applies to you and what doesn’t.
1. Befriend structure
Broadly speaking, I think it’s helpful to think of reasonable approaches to work/life balance as lying along a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is the approach that uses strict boundaries to separate work time from play time, with every hour is scheduled and accounted for. At the other extreme is the approach that blends work fully into life, which might look like finishing problem sets while hanging out with friends, watching lecture videos while on the exercise bike, reading textbook chapters while watching TV, etc. As long as you manage to get in adequate amounts of work and leisure time, both approaches can be effective.
But I have to come clean here: I’m not an unbiased observer. I’m a big, big fan of structure and order in my life. Yes, I know (from personal experience, sadly) that there is a limit beyond which structuring time can be less than healthy, and it’s certainly true that different people operate best with different levels of structure. That said, if your goal is to get a lot of different kinds of things done every day, it helps to be efficient, and structure is efficiency’s best friend. I know that I do not do my best work when I’m attempting to multitask or to make studying more enjoyable by watching Netflix. And if I don’t feel like I’ve done my best work, it’s hard to enjoy my free time as fully. I’ve also found that setting clear boundaries has made it easier to remember that being a premed (or medical student) is not the entirety of my identity, nor should it be.
2. Set priorities (and honor them)
Every day, you face hundreds of choices regarding how to spend your time. It can be exhausting just to get through them (decision fatigue is a thing—look it up!), let alone to make wise choices. That’s why it can be so helpful to make a list of the different things in your life that are important to you, and then to rank them. As difficult as that may be, it can really help clarify how you want to be spending your time on a daily basis. You might find that staying in touch with your family, for instance, is higher on your list than keeping up with Game of Thrones, but somehow your Sunday evenings always end with you watching the Mother of Dragons instead of calling your mother (if you’re reading this, Mom, I swear this is a purely hypothetical example). It might even be the case that you need to dial back your attendance at physics office hours so that you can get in a couple more hours of exercise, sleep, or relationship time.
This is a very, very important skill—not just for now, but for your whole career. Taking care of patients in the real world requires a constant balance of priorities: do you use the next fifteen minutes to look up an unfamiliar symptom, to call a patient with lab results, to deal with your horrendously engorged inbox, to squeeze in another appointment, to update a patient’s medication orders, or to do a quick procedure? You need to develop a sense for identifying and characterizing problems based on how urgent they are, how consequential they are, and how much you can do about them.
3. Fight for your soul
Remember: there’s no point in working your butt off for a dozen years only to become a jaded, soulless physician who can’t think or feel beyond textbooks and test scores. People want zombies on their TVs, not in their doctor’s office. Pursuing life experiences outside of medicine will help you connect much better to patients for whom MCAT prep, shadowing, and cell biology research are not fascinating fibers in the fabric of life (unless you want all of your patients to be premed, medical students, and physicians, in which case…good luck).
The good news is that you don’t have to try to come up with any new impressive hobbies. Just try to spend a little time every week doing something meaningful and interesting that doesn’t relate to medicine. I personally love reading fiction, which I find not only inherently enjoyable but also helpful in broadening my experience of the world and the kinds of people who live in it—people whom I might one day take care of as a physician.
4. Know thyself
Because of the enormity of medical knowledge and of medical responsibility, you will have to deal with rules and processes and checklists being imposed on you your entire career. That makes it all the more important that you figure out who you are and what you value, the sooner the better. In fact, medical school and the rest of your training will be much, much easier if you’re able to know what matters to you, separate from what the people around you think or what the system you’re in is telling you. It seems like an abstract concept, but consider this: when it’s time to choose your residency, how will you know where to start if you’ve never thought about (and pursued) what makes you happy?
In order to do this well, you have to explore and take risks. When I graduated from college, I thought about working as a clinical research coordinator at my top choice medical school. But I eventually decided that I needed to experience the world outside of academia, so I packed up and landed in Utah, where I worked for eighteen months at a wilderness therapy program, backpacking with teenage guys in treatment for substance use and other mental health issues. It was mildly terrifying to move to a state where I knew literally no one and start a hardcore wilderness job with embarrassingly little outdoors experience. But I learned so much about myself and picked up so much from the unfamiliar environment that A. my medical school application was much stronger and B. I’ve been able to navigate the demands of medical school with a much better sense of self.
5. Enjoy the ride (or try to)
One problem with a mindset of delayed gratification is that the present can seem like a chore, something you just have to get through to make it to your real goal, when you’ll finally be happy. Surprise! Happiness doesn’t quite work that way. Sure, external conditions have a huge influence on your life satisfaction, but the more you’re able to find moments of appreciation amidst the struggle, the more energized and fulfilled you’ll be. This is the kind of thing that people work on in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has a remarkably strong evidence base. By shifting your thoughts, beliefs, and judgments about the events occurring in your life, you can very concretely shift your emotional state. When it comes to your work, remind yourself about the joy of learning and nurture your appreciation for the amazing complexity of the world we inhabit. Outside of your work, take time to focus on the beauty of your walk to class or the taste of your morning/afternoon/midnight/2 AM coffee (please don’t get into the habit of 2 AM coffee!).
I’ll be the first to admit that this is difficult for me to put into practice, but it’s also very true that I’ve been happiest when I’ve been successful in doing so.
Most importantly, if you ever find that you are really, really not enjoying your life for a prolonged period of time, honor that warning sign and take a second to reflect. Check in with people who care about you and revisit your priorities. It could be worth paying a visit to student mental health services—I did myself during some particularly tough times in college, and I’m so glad I did. Your medical career is important, but not as important as you.
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