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Medical Student Perspectives: Time Management during Medical School

In the past two years, I have taken two of the most important oaths of my career. First, I was commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force, and a few months later I took the Hippocratic Oath. Not only do I tackle the prescribed national medical curriculum, but I also undergo an additional 800 instructional hours specific to my military medical officer training. Most medical students find the standard curriculum demanding enough of both their time and energy without having to be responsible for significantly more material. As a result, I have had no choice but to sharpen my time management skills in order to be successful in my coursework.

Upon entering medical school, it seems that all students are in a constant race against time. As students, we learn to survive on minimal sleep to capitalize on our wakeful hours. However, a demanding workload and not enough time to do it in is a situation not unique to medical students. Physicians have an average of 10-15 minutes per patient, stacks of paperwork, and family obligations waiting at home. Effective time management is essential to our profession. A few simple time management strategies will help us as students and as budding physicians.

Know Thyself
Most medical students feel that they would do more if they only had the time. Time is a precious commodity as a student, but sometimes we spend time ineffectively without even realizing it. Try this for one week: record a daily log of activities from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night – and be honest. It is surprising how much time is spent on the phone, in front of the television, or even napping. Most people will be surprised to find how much time goes unaccounted. Remember, every extra half hour counts.

Triage
If you can rattle off last week’s lecture in your sleep but cannot make conversation about much else, you may have a serious problem. Living on schoolwork alone is similar to only including one food group in your diet – it is not only monotonous, but also unhealthy. Before getting out of class, make a list of what you need to accomplish that day. A visual reminder of what you have to do is helpful when planning a schedule. You should list activities from most essential to least important, while being realistic about free time for meals and short breaks. Too often, students neglect personal needs to make time for studies. Make time each day to do something you enjoy, even if only for 15 minutes. Though it may eat away from study time, a daily workout, for example, can make you more focused and efficient. We learn that regular exercise has many health benefits, including the release of natural endorphins and improved sleep quality at night. If you find that your energy level is low, no matter how much you sleep, it might be time for a change in routine.

Cut Yourself Some Slack
Even if you have time management down to a science, you are not a machine. Some days are harder than others: your car could break down, there might be a family emergency, or you may feel run down. Sometimes the frustration of not being able to follow your schedule to the tee takes precious energy away and leaves us feeling like failures. Whatever the reason, we have to be able to forgive ourselves for falling off course every once in a while, in hopes that a break will allow us to get right back into the swing of things.

Science fiction writer Frank Herbert once said, “There is no secret to balance. You just have to feel the waves.” Do not forget that you are entering a profession which requires daily sacrifice and impacts everyone differently. Time management is a skill worth learning early on as a student because it will be necessary as a physician. Like medicine, it is a skill that comes with practice. If practiced correctly, it will allow you to find a balance between things you must do and the things you should do in your busy life.

Lavanya Viswanathan, M.S., 2LT, USAF
Military Representative, ACP Council of Student Members
Representative, American Association of Medical Colleges
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, 2011
Email: Lavanya.Viswanathan@usuhs.mil

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Back to February 2009 Issue of IMpact

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