The Medical School Balancing Act

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Goal: Provide a brief inspection of how to balance your responsibilities, with a special focus on medical school.

Everyone is given 24 hours in a day, but we are each given different resources and different responsibilities to fill those 24 hours. For instance, we all have the same 24 hours as Bill Gates, but Bill’s resources, particularly money, are far more vast than ours allowing him to hire people to do many tasks (cook, clean, organize his life) that I have to do myself. But money isn’t the only resource, our energy, related to our mental health, also determines what we can accomplish. At the same time we all still share the same goal of achieving success with each of our tasks. In medical school, it feels like our responsibilities are particularly difficult, which makes living a balanced, content life more of a challenge.

The key to balance is knowing how to prioritize.

Throughout the years I have come across many analogies and explanations for how everyone can live their life with optimal priorities. A common analogy is the glass jar analogy. I recently came across another take that describes the different balls (responsibilities) we are juggling as made of rubber, while others are made of glass. While I love these time management strategies to guide my life, their real goal is efficiency, not balance. Completing my school work helps me feel productive and happy, but if I work for 8 hours on school, and then have to cook my meals, and then go out to run an errand, or vacuum the house, I was just hella productive all day long (which feels great). But then the next day I have to study another 8 hours for school and then cook more meals, and do more chores, and run more errands, and eventually the content I feel for completing my responsibilities becomes less fulfilling, and as the cycle repeats my life eventually gets thrown off balance. To mix efficiency with content peace, I need to do something different. This is how I view my priorities to maintain a balanced life, even in medical school.

Categorize Your Priorities

Before you can balance everything in your life, you need to know what it is you are balancing. Sit down with a pen and paper and think about all of the things you do over a week and where you spend your time. Try to group together what you can – having too many categories further complicates your balancing act, but it is still important to differentiate your unique needs. Here are my priorities:

Basic Priority Balancing

After categorizing your priorities, you need to balance them! The way I try to balance is really simple: do at least one thing for each category every day. If that seems like too much work, keep it simple. My category of physical health can be met by eating a meal, going for a walk, or getting enough sleep. For my home category, I’m not going to dust the whole house every day, but I can clear off my nightstand and put my toiletries back in the drawer instead of keeping them on the counter. This is where it becomes important to think of your needs as rocks and sand, or glass and rubber balls. Taking mindful action in your categories doesn’t require much additional effort, you just have to acknowledge that an action you did is taking care of one of your needs. Obviously some categories are going to require you to put in more effort than others, I need to spend significantly more time on fulfilling my school needs than I should be fulfilling my personal interest projects, but acknowledging that your work or school needs are not the only things of value can help you feel more balanced.

Realistic Priority Balancing

Clearly my basic balance method is idealistic. Life happens, things come up, your energy and resources you can put towards your needs may change. This doesn’t mean your life is cursed to be chaotic and lopsided. To keep your balanced life realistic, remember that your primary needs can be different each day and that balance is not measured on a day to day basis, but it is cumulative! Here are a few examples of how my needs and resources change:

  • A couple weeks ago I was involved in an accident of sorts that caused extensive injuries to my nose and mouth. Ordinarily school is consistently a primary need that I focus on each day, but for the first few days after my accident, recovering from my injuries and rest needed to be my main focus. During that time, my daily school task was simply emailing my professors to submit an excused absence. For social needs, I called my parents to update and reassure them that I was okay. For my personal projects, I really didn’t do anything. This is our first theBombJopCOM post in 2 weeks. It was too much energy for me to write an article or post an instagram until now, and while that wasn’t promoting the balanced life of my dreams, my physical health and need to rest were so depleted that in the long run it made more sense to suspend my personal project needs until I was at a better place to resume normal activity, like I am now. I still am feeling more tired than I normally do, and that is decreasing my total energy I can spend on my needs. So when I think about my daily checklist, I need to make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew in a day.

  • Due to a wide array of circumstances, I performed incredibly poorly on my first of two exams in our Skin, Blood, Lymph course. In order to still pass the course, I had to do outstanding on my second exam. During the two weeks leading up to the exam, my focus turned even more towards school than normal. I was studying for most of the day but I also needed to keep my attitude positive, reassuring myself that my goal of passing was possible and managing my stress by reasoning my way through what would happen if I failed the class and that it would not be the end of the world. After working super hard for two weeks, kicking butt on my exam, and passing the class, I was able to relax, have fun, and get some chores done during our weekend off – restoring balance.

  • Some days I cannot bring myself to study or be productive, my Fun/Rest deficit is too low or my mental and emotional energy are running on empty. On these days, my priorities checklist is more of a bare minimum list. The most important thing to do on these days is to NOT beat yourself up for “being lazy”. You are recovering, taking a break, recharging, etc. Being upset over not working only further drains your energy.
My To-Do lists are not always a physical list, but normally something that I think about when I manage my planner. The above lists are examples of tasks that I consciously decide to complete in order to meet all of my needs.

Assortment of Guidance

  • Remember that if you need to take a day off of school, it’s okay. By placing your energy elsewhere now, you can prevent burn out later and can maintain your standards of performance. Additionally, know what you can and cannot control. This weekend I had a mental health day with the expectation of being productive the following day and then I woke up with a killer headache and nausea, so I had to take another “off” day. I couldn’t make myself not sick, but I could choose to not feel guilty about having two “off” days in a row. I also made the choice the following day to not stress about my two previous rest days and just focus on the present.
  • If you slip up on your priorities, try again. Living a balanced life is a continuous and active process. If you give up for good, the chaos wins.
  • Because this is a continuous process, revisit your priorities every so often. As life changes, you might find new categories to fill your needs and other categories may become irrelevant.
  • Organization can help keep you on task. Using a planner, bullet journal, or to-do list can help you plan your day and remind you of what needs you still need to satisfy. (Here is a TEDTalk by the creator of the bullet journal that is super helpful and here is the set-up I use for my bullet journal.)
My bullet journal

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