How to do more with less time: the 3 P’s

study schedules study skills
By Nico

As a medical student, I often feel as though there is more work in the day than there are hours to do it. To succeed in medical school, I’ve had to learn how to effectively balance clinical rotations with board exam review, research duties, extracurricular activities, and personal relationships. I’ve also seen younger siblings and students struggle with time management as they try to balance a growing list of commitments in their quest for admission to colleges and graduate programs. 

The good news is that time is rarely as rigid or linear as we tend to think it is. Much of our time is wasted or spent inefficiently, and we have more power to shape it than we generally admit. Here are a few principles that have helped me in my own quest to better manage time. 

Parkinson’s law

In an essay he published in The Economist in 1955, the British historian Northcote Parkinson elaborated his now-famous principle: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” He begins his essay with the example of an elderly “lady of leisure” who spends an entire day finding, composing and mailing a postcard to her niece – a task which “would occupy a busy man for three minutes.” 

Many of us have had similar experiences. If I know I have 5 minutes to send an e-mail before my 4:30pm meeting, I will get it done more efficiently than had I budgeted 20 minutes. Parkinson’s law is also why setting a deadline for yourself can be an act of self-love: it is inarguably better to keep your tasks within well-defined bounds than to endure the slow plod of work with no clear conclusion in sight. 

The Pomodoro technique

We often work for long periods of time with divided attention. The Pomodoro technique teaches us to work for short intervals with our full attention. This technique breaks up your tasks into more manageable chunks of time separated by short periods of relaxation. Underlying this technique is the recognition that, no matter how smart or hardworking, our attention tends to wane around the 30 minute mark. 

To carry this out, switch your phone off or activate Airplane mode and eliminate any potential distractions from your surroundings. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work only on your tasks during this time interval. When the timer is up, take a 5-minute break (e.g. walking or stretching) before starting another 25-minute period. After you’ve completed four 25-minute cycles, give yourself a longer, 15-30 minute, then start all over again!  There are various free apps and extensions offering Pomodoro timers – “Be Focused” is one I like to use. 

The Pareto principle

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist who came up with a simple but powerful insight while studying land and wealth distribution in Italy. Noticing that the vast majority of land was held by just a few families, he came to the conclusion that 80% of effects (or outputs) are caused by 20% of causes (or inputs). He saw the same principle in action in the pea plants in his garden, with an abundance of outputs coming from a small minority of healthy plants. 

What does Pareto’s principle have to do with time management? Suppose you are studying for an exam and have to study five topics. You might take one of two approaches: either distribute your time equally on the five topics, or recognize that some topics are more foundational and/or more likely to be tested, and focus your attention on those. In almost every case, the latter approach will bring you better results. This approach is often used by medical students, who prioritize information by working on the “highest-yield” principles before working their way down to “lower-yield” topics as time allows. 

Conclusion

We can do more with our time than we generally assume. While the principles above won’t work in every situation for every person, I encourage you to experiment with them, pay attention to how they affect your mood and productivity, and adapt them as needed to your learning style.

Comments

topicTopics
academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT expository writing college admissions English MD/PhD admissions GMAT LSAT GRE writing strategy chemistry physics math biology ACT graduate admissions language learning law school admissions test anxiety interview prep MBA admissions academic advice premed homework help personal statements AP exams career advice creative writing MD study schedules summer activities Common Application history test prep philosophy computer science secondary applications organic chemistry economics supplements PSAT admissions coaching grammar law statistics & probability psychology ESL research 1L CARS SSAT covid-19 legal studies logic games reading comprehension dental admissions mathematics USMLE Spanish calculus engineering parents Latin verbal reasoning DAT case coaching excel mentorship political science French Linguistics Tutoring Approaches academic integrity chinese AMCAS DO MBA coursework PhD admissions Social Advocacy admissions advice biochemistry classics diversity statement genetics geometry kinematics medical school mental health quantitative reasoning skills time management Anki English literature IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs algebra algorithms art history artificial intelligence astrophysics athletics business business skills careers cold emails data science internships letters of recommendation poetry presentations resume science social sciences software engineering study abroad tech industry trigonometry work and activities 2L 3L Academic Interest DMD EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python STEM Sentence Correction Step 2 TMDSAS Zoom acids and bases amino acids analysis essay architecture argumentative writing brain teaser campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets cell biology central limit theorem chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum demonstrated interest dental school distance learning electricity and magnetism enrichment european history executive function finance first generation student freewriting fun facts functions gap year genomics harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law induction information sessions institutional actions integrated reasoning intern international students investing investment banking lab reports logic mandarin chinese mba mechanical engineering medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis music music theory neurology neuroscience office hours operating systems organization pedagogy phrase structure rules plagiarism pre-dental proofs pseudocode psych/soc quantum mechanics resistors resonance revising scholarships school selection simple linear regression slide decks sociology software stem cells stereochemistry study spots synthesis teaching technical interviews transfer typology units virtual interviews writer's block writing circles