[Editor's Note: The following post is the fifth place entry in the 2016 WCI Scholarship Competition. That's good for a $100 Amazon gift certificate. I enjoyed this essay because I could relate to it as I recall treating both my undergraduate and my medical educations as a day job and don't think I ever pulled an all-nighter before I started taking call as an MS3 15 years ago. It turns out I don't like being awake at 4 am and good financial decisions early in my career have now allowed me to quit doing that. At any rate, this is by Conor Smith, an MS2 at The University of Missouri School of Medicine.]

I’ve gotten more sleep in medical school than I ever did in undergrad. You read that right. Oh, and I’m also married, expecting my first child this October, and work as a case manager and volunteer with our student-run free clinic, and work with high school youth in our community. Maybe, just maybe, you can save yourself a lot of sickness, tiredness, and the general feeling of being completely overwhelmed during your time in medical school and beyond.conor-smith-family

Coming in to medical school, there was a general consensus (one that has held true through my first year) that the journey through medical school would be the most challenging endeavor that we had taken on. The sheer breadth of information that we need to know before each exam is staggering, and thinking ahead to the Step 1 exam makes even the most confident gunner squirm just a little bit. There was another consensus that we were going to be utterly exhausted and hating our lives throughout the whole process. Let me come against that lie with this little nugget of truth:

It doesn’t have to be that way.

So often, our preconceived notions of an experience dictate our experience of the event itself. In other words, what we look for is generally what we find. Here are some examples that I’ve seen.

There are some people who conclude that unless you are pulling all-nighters at least once a week, spending every waking hour with some sort of flash card, review book, or atlas in your hands, you’re doing it wrong. These are the people who, as test time nears, can only talk about how unprepared they are, how little sleep they’ve gotten, etc. (These people usually ace the tests and swear they thought they knew nothing.) They may do well on paper, but that doesn’t sound like thriving in medical school to me.

Another group of people waits until the very end of the span just before a test to cram everything in. For two weeks, their lives consist of very little personal hygiene, alienation from friends and family, and a constant, looming fear of the upcoming test, all the while swearing up and down that they will never let this happen the next time around.

In both of the examples that I just gave (and have seen lived out many times over now), there is something crucial in their approaches that is missing: priorities. Medical school is the most demanding schooling that I have ever been engaged in – and for good reason. We will be trusted with the lives of people who come to us seeking help where none else can be found. However, we also know that physician burnout rate is high, even being described by some as “a public health crisis.” My point is simply this: unless we learn how to take care of ourselves during our training,  we will suffer in major ways over the long haul.

Having made the case clear as to why we need to get some things in line, here’s how I personally have overcome some of the challenges to time, energy, and the rigorous demands of a medical education.

# 1 Sleep is Key

Sleep is one of those things that most people feel they never have enough of. I know in undergrad, the night before a test usually meant a night up until 3 or 4 AM cramming in the minute details of physiology or geology or whatever else was the pressing exam looming in the morning. I would look back on my time and wonder, “why did I put this off for so long?”  My problem was this: I hadn’t made it a priority to do a little bit each day, and now I had to suffer the consequences. The worst part was this: I had nothing to show for all of the time that I had spent playing Mario Tennis or aimlessly searching for entertainment on YouTube. When our time is spent well, we reap the rewards of a good night’s sleep.

# 2 Taking Care of Yourself Is NOT a Waste of Time

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It is a constant battle when I wake up in the morning fully intending on going to the gym to sweat for a few minutes before the day starts. Immediately, thoughts of upcoming patient encounters, presentations and study guides that need finishing, and a host of other obligations spring into my head. I tell myself that I simply don’t have the time to spend an hour at the gym. Here’s the deal though: taking care of yourself is NEVER a waste of time. As a physician, picture your life and career as a cup that we will be constantly pouring into our patient’s lives through our care, constantly pouring into our colleagues and staff to make our team run as efficiently as possible. Eventually, unless we take care of ourselves, “filling up our cup” on a regular basis, we are going to run out.

# 3 It’s Time to Keep a Planner

So how do these things actually happen? I mentioned it before, but prioritizing your time and minimizing distraction are going to be key if you don’t want to end up like one of the examples above. This is something that we are all going to carry into our professional lives anyways, so it doesn’t hurt to start now. Keep a list of important dates, reminders, and class schedules in your phone. I use Google calendar, and it helps me to stay on top of many of the obligations that I have. People will remember whether or not you follow through on what you promise, so make it a priority!

# 4 Give Yourself Some Grace

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Driven is a word that describes most medical students. With that driven nature comes high expectations of ourselves, and we can often be our own worst enemies. As we go through medical school, it is crucial that when we don’t quite live up to how we wanted to perform, we are able to give ourselves some grace. What this looks like is not taking it personally if we get a bad review from an instructor, or pull a bad grade on a test, or completely flub a presentation. There may be difficult family situations and other life events that result in less time and a lower grade on a particular exam. You may have just been a little off that day. It comes with the territory of being human. Be okay with that. I’m not saying that you should want to stay there, but give yourself some grace!

These are just a few thoughts on how to set ourselves up for success in medical school. Needless to say, we are in the very beginning of a very long and very challenging journey towards becoming physicians. When you feel overwhelmed, unappreciated, or maybe just plain exhausted, never forget that in the end, our lives matter because of what we will be able to do for many people we have yet to meet. Learning to take care of ourselves so that we might take care of others is absolutely crucial.

What do you think? What do you do to “keep your cup full?” Do you find studying after midnight to be productive? Why or why not? Comment below!