From the first day of medical school orientation, we have been advised to maintain a life outside of the walls of the hospital and to continue our own hobbies and interests. This often feels overwhelming among the endless classes, exams, clerkships and applications, not to mention extracurricular activities. We all want to be a model medical student, battling our desires to be a good friend, husband, wife and person. I find medicine to be an alluring mistress who will gradually steal you from your life, particularly once clerkships begin. You see patients smile, you work with people you admire, and it takes you from family, friends and home. There are times when it is easy to stay at work and ignore the dinner that is getting cold at home. Medicine is a beautiful thing, but it can take something from you and even change you. I am a fourth-year medical student now and only expect the pull of medicine to continue and worsen in residency and beyond.
Over the past four years, I have found the phrase “work-life balance” is overused. The reality is that the balance shifts greatly from day to day, month to month, and year to year. There are moments when life will demand 110 percent of you, and there are moments when work will demand 110 percent of you. This holds true whether you are a physician, engineer, construction worker, or working in many other fields. Physicians and medical students are not the only ones trying to balance work and life, despite the fact that we think so at times.
In addition, what one person considers balanced may not be what his neighbor considers as such. For instance, my father has worked Monday through Saturday for his entire life. It was not until I was well into my 20s and working on my own that I started to realize that this is not the norm for most individuals and that people actually enjoy having two days off. At the end of the day, how you manage your time becomes a matter of personal preference and an individual decision that we will all make throughout our careers. What gets lost among the talk of balance is that of happiness! Your life may be unbalanced, but it does not mean that you cannot find ways to make yourself happy. I see how much my father enjoys his work and how he balances his time at home and maximizes his time there. It shows me that it is not just the balance that you strike but the happiness you feel with it and what you make with your time. Here are my blatantly obvious techniques that have helped me and maybe will help someone else.
- Keep perspective: Keep your top priorities as top priorities, whatever they may be and wherever you might be. Family, friends, significant others and even patients have kept me sane during my worst moments. Remembering that you have support, food, football, etcetera waiting for you when you get home can get you through the day. Know that the most important things in your life will always be there, even when you are not. I remember there was a late Friday night during my first year when I was deep within the bowels of the library studying biochemistry. I had been successful in school but was by no means at the top of my class. I pictured my friends and family and realized that the extra hour I was planning to spend studying would likely not bear any fruit, either in my grade or in my ability to take care of patients down the line. I went home, played with my dog, and realized that this was what I really needed to be happy and productive the next day.
- Stay flexible: As medical students, residents, fellows and physicians, we are by nature an obsessive-compulsive bunch, and keeping a flexible mind and schedule can give us odd twitches and seizures. However, there are times when life or work will overwhelm us completely. Children, personal issues, ICU rotations and others can all be incredibly demanding, and maintaining your flexibility will allow you to adapt and survive changes. Reschedule when unexpected things happen, and use your support system. Take a deep breath — or three — and finish the job, then take advantage of the next free time that comes your way.
- Stay focused on fun: There have been times when I found myself miserable during my rotations and continued to be miserable once I got home. I realized I was putting life in front of work while at work, and work in front of life while at home. Focus on the task at hand and separate your time. Try not to study while watching TV, and don’t watch TV while studying. It certainly helped me stay productive, healthy and well-rounded.
- Predict the future: While this can be helpful for yourself, it is particularly true when considering significant others. When you know that you will have down time in the future, make the most of it. Make plans and follow through. Visit a different city, see a concert, and do something that you will enjoy doing and requires advance planning. Make the most of your time and take advantage of it.
Wellness in medical school certainly does not always come easily, but being proactive and doing some of the same things that make you an amazing student can help you to be well. Hopefully, we can all look to a bright future day after day.