The Trials & Errors of Finding a Work Life Balance

This article was originally published on the blog of Medelita Scrubs & Lab Coats.

Written by Tiffany Sinclair, MS-3

One of the more frequently asked questions I get is, “How do you balance medical school with life?” (Often, it will be phrased as: how do you eat healthy/stay fit/go to Disney/stay sane while in medical school?).

Well, unfortunately, I have failed many times at the work-school-life balance. For me, work is my clinical rotations, and school is studying for shelf and board exams- no more classes. Between those two, it can be a challenge to find time for a life! In fact, I have had two meetings with advisors this past week, and both of them told me, “Tiffany, make sure you’re taking enough time for yourself and to have fun!” BOTH of them were concerned because I’ve been doing extra studying, activities, and projects on top of my clinical rotations.

If they had told me this one year ago, I wouldn’t have really known what to say. I probably would have said, “Well, I guess I could go to the gym, but only after I review 8 lectures and do 80 UWorld questions.” I was not in a good place taking care of myself last year. However, I was honestly able to tell both of my advisors this week that I AM making time for myself and for fun activities!

Last spring, I went through a rough semester of medical school. My class blocks were hard, I felt distant from my friends (even in my class), I was unsure of what area of medicine I wanted to go into, and I had boards looming ahead of me. Honestly, I was not taking care of myself. There was no balance. I only went to the gym a few times a month, I ate out a lot, and I wasn’t getting good sleep. I did occasionally go to the beach or to Disney, but often I felt guilty the whole time Itook those breaks and wasn’t able to truly enjoy them because I was so stressed about missing studying. I recall one vacation when I was in Key West with my mom and trying to study the renal system, but all the words were literally jumbling together in my head because I was stressing out.

You know what happened after a few months of not taking time for myself? I crashed. I broke. I wasn’t myself anymore.

Thankfully, after taking my boards, moving to a new city, and starting full time clinical rotations, I have found balance once again. I discovered my calling in medicine, and it gave me new inspiration to learn and grind toward my goals. I began to realize how rough that time I neglected to maintain a work-school-life balance was for my body, so I prioritized finding the right balance. And, like I said, I can now honestly say that I have found a great balance. I am truly content with my mix of work, school, self-care, fun activities, and connecting with friends.

Don’t neglect self-care

After I finished a surgery rotation in December, I noticed that while I did fun things and saw my friends often, I was so busy with surgery and going places that I neglected self-care. I am planning for a busy few months of surgery rotations next fall, so my vow in December was to spend the first 6 months of this year prioritizing self-care in my work-life balance so I’m prepared for a few crazy months!

So in the spirit of taking care of myself (and having fun doing it) I’ve been playing around with healthy recipes, going to the gym regularly, whitening my teeth, filing my nails, taking my vitamins, getting my annual doctor appointments and lab screenings, and learning all about proper skin care. I looked at my planner, and a lot of weekends have not-so-fun events going on, so I also planned a weekend for a fun Disney trip! I have been trying to stay in touch with my family a lot more, too.

And you know what? Focusing on my work-life balance has been incredible for my positive attitude and productivity!

So, how DO you find the right work-school-life balance?

I personally have not found an exact formula, but what I do know is that if you are burned out, you will be inefficient and unproductive. Do what you have to do, work your shifts, earn your paycheck, do not neglect studying for exams, keep with your prior commitments. But, if you start feeling burned out, take a morning off/a night off/a weekend off. Something to do what YOU love and what YOU need. And most importantly, when you do take that time off to rejuvenate, you CANNOT stress about missing XYZ!

Some things I love doing to make the “work” part of my balance more productive:

Make a plan! If you’re on a hospital floor, plan the order of patients you need to see/tasks you need to do. If you’re in a clinic, decide if you want to do your notes after each patient or in blocks throughout the day. If you’re a student, plan the topics you need to cover during your study session.

Set a timer to work for an hour. Don’t touch your phone, answer e-mails, or surf the web.

Mini reward yourself for getting tasks done – a 5 minute break outside in the fresh air, a new cup of coffee, a 10 minute social media break.

To-do lists work great for me, but research shows they can subconsciously cause stress. So maybe consider making a list of only the 5 most important priorities that day.

Pick 1-3 times a day to deal with all your e-mails (I’m guilty of constantly checking my e-mail and sidetracking myself! Working on it…).

Some ideas for when you need to incorporate a quick “life” balance for your personal health:

Get up 15 minutes earlier and make a good breakfast and drink good coffee.

Read a couple chapters of a book. (I was a book junkie before medical school!)

Watch one of your favorite episodes of TV (make sure you set a limit on how many!)

Facetime a family member or friend who you haven’t talked to in a while.

Go for a 20 minute walk when you’re sleepy instead of napping midafternoon- it will refresh you more than a nap!

Grab happy hour or dinner with your friends on your way home from work.

Please learn from my mistake: don’t neglect your work/school-life balance! Take care of yourself, rejuvenate, do what you love. Don’t stress when your body is telling you it needs a legitimate break. Most importantly, focus on finding YOUR balance. What works for me might not work for you. But, I can tell you without a doubt, my brain functions better, my soul is happier, and I am far more productive ever since I restructured my work-school-life balance.

Ariel Jacoby
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