Time management in medical school: Pre-clinical years

There is more to weight lifting than simply lifting weights, and there is more to medical school than simply studying.

Muscle building is not entirely different from memory building. While lifting weights, we’re not actually building any muscle. In fact, any potential gains are not made until our bodies have sufficient time to recover. It is not until after we leave the gym, and get a good night’s rest, that we can reap the fruits of our labor. Sleep is among the more indispensable aspects of a weight lifting program, and is equally essential to academic success.

Studying is not entirely different from weight lifting; any information we may have learned today cannot be consolidated without a good night’s rest tonight. Just as we have to give our bodies time to recover, we must give our brain’s the time and the space to recover in order to build memory.

Studying continuously for several hours without taking regular breaks, is similarly counterproductive to our aim. This is where the Pomodoro technique comes in.

The technique is very simple, and frankly, I’m not sure why it needed to be “invented” or trademarked per se. I call it the on-off method. You simply work for a specific period of time, classically 25 minutes, (the on period) and then take a scheduled break thereafter, classically 5 minutes (the off period). After completing four such sessions in two hours, you can permit yourself to take a slightly longer break, anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

This method is ideal for me and my ADHD brain. I utilize it in my studies, devoting x minutes to solid work, and giving myself y minutes to decompress. Dependent upon the task, I may do 20 minutes on followed by 10 minutes off, 40 minutes on followed by 20 minutes off, or 50 minutes on, 10 minutes off. I personally find that 5 minutes is simply not sufficient to do anything beyond getting up to stretch, empty your bladder, or make a cup of coffee. When I started with five minute breaks, I invariably set myself up for failure; eventually I  reached a point where the timer would go off, but I realized it’s not enough time, and fooled myself into thinking that I will start working again in another couple of minutes. Like the proverbial snooze button, I would get caught up in whatever it is I was doing on my break, and before I knew it, 30 minutes or even an hour had gone by.  This is why I mix up the length of my on/off sessions depending upon my mood, my tasks for the day, and how motivated I am to do work.

Let’s say it’s Saturday, and I’m not studying any new material today. Instead, I’m just going to be doing comprehensive reviews of last week’s pathology and pharmacology. In this case, this is material I have seen before, so I am simply going to do 20 minutes on, 10 minutes off. As I have seen this material at least twice before, I estimate it will take me no more than 20 minutes to do a comprehensive review of any given lecture. During my ten minute breaks, I flip on Netflix, and watch a bit of a show; my show of choice at the moment is Futurama (ahh…that’s good satire). You will be surprised by how slowly five minutes go by when you’re watching TV; you might even think you missed your timer. It gives you the opportunity to clear your head and be immersed in a different world, if only for a little while.

On the other hand, let’s say it’s the beginning of a new week of material. Rather than reviewing, my day is going to be spent assimilating new information that I have never seen before. I will have to take more time to absorb and become acclimated to the material as I try to make sense of my professors’ [poorly organized] lectures, by organizing the information myself. On a day such as this, I will do the 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off method. It will take me time to organize the material (and make an aesthetically pleasing study guide), and it will also take longer for me to study this material for the first time. What’s more, the process will be laborious and frustrating, and I will need more time to take breaks for stretching, to relieve myself from the task of agonizing over the minutiae of pathology, cytokines and all, I am expected to be able to regurgitate for the purposes of our next exam.

Obviously, the on/off method is not for everyone. But if you do it correctly, and tailor it to your own needs, you can actually do a fair amount of studying without feeling completely depleted at the end of the day. Perhaps you reviewed 12 lectures, but you also watched three episodes of Futurama (not including the one hour break you took for lunch and the one hour break you took for dinner). There are many free Pomodoro apps which can help you keep track of your productivity over time, giving you insight into your least and most productive days of the week and times of day, but you could also just as easily set the timer on your phone or any ole kitchen timer to keep track of your on/off sessions. Happy studying!

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