As someone who’s going through medical school to learn to be a doctor, writing books, and just trying to be an all-around functional human being, something that I often get asked is: How do you go about making that transition?
And to be honest, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about too! How can I go from working a 12 or 13 hour day at the hospital and come home, mentally exhausted with aching feet, and transition into something resembling a human? What’s more, how do you become someone who can not only register their own thoughts, but actually put them down on paper? Well, I won’t lie—some days are definitely easier than others.
So today, I’ll talk about some strategies I use for making that transition. This will be a two-part series. Today we’ll talk about tips and tricks for setting yourself up well before you try to shift gears. Next week we’ll discuss the transition itself and some strategies for making that happen in as seemless a manner as possible.
Many of these strategies apply to all sorts of transitions you have in your life. But my quick disclaimer, is that I can only speak to what has worked well for my personal life circumstances. We all have responsibilities that demand distinct things from us throughout the day and we have to find ways of transitioning between those, taking on unique roles within the places and environments we find ourselves in.
For me, I’m on my away rotations, living out of hotel rooms and traveling around the country from hospital to hospital. This presents its own challenges to be sure, but also entails certain freedoms. I’m not married and I don’t have any children, unless you count my adorable cavalier puppy, Rory (which of course, I do). But because of that, these transitions will look different for different people, depending on what your circumstances are. There’s no one-size-fits all approach to this, so here I’m just giving you mine. And here they are!
1) Set Goals
Step one to achieving an effective transition, or having work-life balance, is to set goals for yourself. And these goals apply to every area of your life! This is because you can’t strategise and prioritize unless you first know what’s even on the to-do list to begin with.
And I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but these should be S.M.A.R.T. goals. They should be Specific enough that each step is thought about ahead of time. They should be Measurable, so you have some quantifiable end point, which assures that they are Achievable, so you can have the satisfaction of checking them off said to-do list. And finally, they should be Realistic, so you’re not setting yourself up for failure with a goal that can’t be achieved within the time-limited frame that you’ve allotted yourself.
So, for example, one of my goals is to do five Question bank questions per day to study for the Medical School Step 1 exam I’ll be taking next spring (a long-term goal that I’m slowly chipping away at). Similarly, another goal I have is to do ten AMBOSS questions per day to study for my surgery shelf exam, which is coming up at the end of my rotation (this Friday, ahh!). So those are my goals: 15 questions, doable right? These are attainable goals that are time limited in that I’m trying to do them every day, and they help keep me organized and on task so I use my time as efficiently as possible.
2) Create Separation
This may sound obvious, but it’s really important that every day, to the best of my ability, when I’m at the hospital, I am at the hospital. I’m not just physically there, but I’m also mentally there. And that can mean several things. It’s checking myself when I daydream about all I will do (or have to do) when I get off work. It’s refusing to stare at the clock and instead start taking advantage of the extra time I have while still required to be on duty (more on this in the next tip). It means being engaged with patients I’m interviewing, the procedures I’m observing, and the cases I’m researching. It’s trusting in the process and doing the hard work during the day, so I have time to relax and be creative in the evening.
There’s been a lot of discussion around work-life balance in the world of late, with much of it focusing on how to be everything to everybody, all of the time. Honestly, for me, I’ve always found balance much easier to achieve when I try to create a separation between responsibilities, rather than constantly splitting my focus. Believe me, I can multitask with the best of them. But study after study has shown us that while multitasking may seem more efficient, it actually makes us less effective at everything we do, which requires more time to do properly.
3) Find Stolen Moments
A major way that I create separation between the hospital and home is to find stolen moments throughout the day. Finding stolen moments means taking the downtime that you have throughout the day and making the most of it. Maybe your patient is being prepped for surgery and there’s nothing you can do to help, or the OR is being turned over and you’re waiting for your patient to make their way up to pre-op. You could use that time to surf Facebook, check your Instagram, all the things we do to fill time. Often, they seem like they’re a way of relaxing. But at least in my experience, all they do is make me stressed out later, when I realize that I have a lot of things to get done and I never seem to have enough hours in the day.
So the way I do this is, I take all of those stolen moments throughout the day, and I put them to use achieving the SMART goals that I already laid out. So maybe, in those 10-15 minutes that I’m waiting for the patient to get to pre-op, I manage to do 2-3 of the questions. But even just a sprinkling of those stolen moments throughout the day, and I can get through it. Another goal I might have is to actually read the chapter I’ll be lectured on in morning didactics the next day (hit or miss if I make it happen, to be honest). I probably can’t read the entire chapter in one sitting, but I can certainly chip away at it, one section at a time.
So that’s tip number three, to create a separation between your work and personal life by finding stolen moments where you can. The value of this strategy is that it focuses your mental energy within an allotted time to maximize your efficiency overall. By using this strategy, you can set yourself up to make a successful transition from work brain to creative brain once you go home.
4) Close Your Loops
Tip number four is to wrap everything up, either before you leave the hospital (or wherever your workplace is), or as soon as you get home. The value to doing this for me is that I’m still in the right mindset. I’m still thinking like a medical student and can be really efficient at achieving the last few academic goals I had for myself that day. This is also a great time to make a list of things you want to accomplish the next day so that you’re not thinking about it right before you get ready to go to sleep (More on that next week!).
So as tempting as it may be, that means not vegging out on the couch as soon as I walk back into my hotel room, flipping through Netflix and trying to find something to numb my brain. It means channeling my energy while I still have it and making that final push to meet my goals. Because the reality is, as soon as you meet your goals, your brain will feel so much less cluttered. That’s because you’ve set your goals for the day, you’ve met them, and you no longer need to feel guilty.
This is also a wonderful point at which to reevaluate your goals. If you need to adjust them, go for it! If you’re halfway through the rotation and still have absolutely no idea what’s going on, then you should adjust your goals so you feel prepared and able to function at your best.
5) Find Satisfaction
But at some point, you need to find satisfaction. This is huge. You don’t need to feel guilty that you aren’t doing more Qbank questions, more flashcards, more Anki. You aren’t reading more papers, doing more suture labs. You set yourself a goal and when you meet that goal, you congratulate yourself and you say, “Well done.” I cannot tell you how many medical students I have met who are incapable of this point. Part of that is normal, we all have drive. You need it to make it to medical school and you need it to do well once you’re there. So it’s understandable that it takes a lot to make us feel satisfied with the work we’ve put in.
But there comes a time when constant hyper-drive becomes self-destructive. So if you’re meeting your goals and achieving the level that you think is necessary, then give yourself time and space. Fill that time with something that will make you happy and that will make you a full person. Because you are not just a medical student, ok? I talked about this last week also, but it’s a trap I’ve often fallen into myself, believing that all my worth and value is tied up in one area of my life. And it’s simply not true.
So that’s it for today! I hope you found these tips helpful as you try to set yourself up for successfully transitioning between whatever responsibilities you face each day. I’ll see you next week for a follow-up post where we discuss the transition process itself, and how I try to recapture the creative spirit after a long day in the hospital.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below with any tips or tricks you have for achieving that coveted work-life balance!