In medical school, the phrase “time management” gets thrown around a lot. It most definitely is important – we are constantly juggling a million things at once! Between class, clinical experiences, maintaining relationships, shadowing, research, extracurriculars, intermurals, church, and even laundry and grocery shopping, being efficient with time and planning ahead is absolutely essential.

But is it possible to over-manage your time?

I survived undergrad and the first bit of medical school by being pretty militaristic with my schedule. To give you a taste, this was my “general” schedule for the year:

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I slotted in all my mandatory curricular time, then my regular commitments like church, bible study, and CMDS (Christian Medical and Dental Society). Then, I booked in exactly when I was going to study what, and for how long. Any grey space is either sleep, time to shower, or meals, with the exception of Friday and Saturday evenings – my “flexible” time. And yes, I do go to bed at 9-9:30pm!

Every day, during each scheduled block of time, I would sit down and schedule out each hour – what I was going to study, in what order, and for how long.

I thought this was what good time management looked like – to know exactly what you’re doing and when you’re doing it, sticking to your schedule and being disciplined enough to say no to things that interfere with it. It’s all about being efficient and maximizing your use of time, right?

There’s just one problem: life doesn’t care about your calendar.

What was I supposed to do if there was an event or appointment or commitment that came up that overlapped with something I had already planned to be doing?? What if I had a meeting scheduled at the same time that I had committed myself to be studying for labs? Or worse – what if I had a full weekend event and I lost two entire days? These kinds of things always messed up my plans for the week, and it made it hard to enjoy any of it – I was always conscious of the fact that I was “cheating” on my schedule.

Micromanaging my time wasn’t helping me be more efficient. It wasn’t helping me stay on top of my school work, and it certainly wasn’t helping me manage my stress. Instead, it was making me feel guilty, rushed, and like I was constantly running behind.

So I threw it out.

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My new and improved (and much more flexible) schedule!

I still have mandatory curricular time slotted in, as well as my regular weekly commitments. But now, if something pops up on a Monday evening during my study time, I know I have room to move that study time somewhere else during the week! If I feel like working out with classmates after school instead of getting up early to swim or run, I can – without feeling guilty.

Instead of my packed personal schedule, I work with a weekly “To Do” list. It includes things like preparing for lectures, doing readings, practicing clinical skills, doing groceries, household chores, as well as meetings and ‘one-off’ kind of events for the week. Then every day, I make a list of what I want to accomplish that day. I know that if I have a busy weekend event coming up, I probably can’t afford to sacrifice my booked in study time – and I will have to say no to things that come up in those times. But I also know that if I am busy with events and fun opportunities during the week, I will need to buckle down and work harder on the weekend to get everything done.

(Sidenote: I’ve also committed to practicing Sabbath this term. A whole day off during medical school is a hefty task – stay tuned for a post on why I think it’s important and what Sabbath in medical school looks like practically!)

When we micromanage our time, we prevent ourselves from being flexible to explore new opportunities, take time to enjoy things, and we don’t give ourselves permission to say “yes” when last minute things come up. What if instead, we approach time management as a practice of self-discipline and self-awareness? Maybe it’s not about being willing and committed to adhering to a strict schedule. Maybe it’s not about saying no when things conflict with your calendar – maybe instead, it’s about learning how – and when –  to say yes. 

What about you – what’s your approach to time management? How do you balance self-discipline with flexibility?

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