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.
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.
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.