10 April 2007


I was answering a question from a student on the Student Doctor Network Forums http://www.studentdoctor.net (Click on the "Forums" link from the home page) that dealt with "burnout". It's that sensation that you can't see "the end in sight" and that dealing with your high stress is taking a major toll on both your mental and physical health. Many students find themselves in the middle of a depression that seems to add to the stress. Depression is one of the first ways the mind attempts to handle high stress. This cycle becomes a circle of perpetual positive gain unless you find a way to break the cycle.

I certainly remember days when I felt as if I had 36 hours of work to cram into 24 hours. When this happens, I remind myself that I need to stop, get some organization and eliminate some of the small "stuff". By small stuff, I mean things that are "low yield" in terms of contribution to the major tasks at hand.

There are things and actions that MUST be done daily. Eating, sleeping, showering and taking care of other physical needs come to mind in terms of the "MUST BE DONE" category. If you are employed, you can add work/study and its necessary tasks. There are things that are optional but necessary like physical exercise that make the other tasks go well but if skipped, are not the end of the world. Then there are the "small stuff" like cleaning out your closet, sink, bedroom etc, that are great to do if you have time but can be postponed to vacation/downtime with few consequences.

One of the biggest problems with the "small stuff" is that it becomes the thing that you find yourself doing with the "major stuff" becomes overwhelming. This can greatly add to your stress level but you are looking for relief and anything that IS relief is a temporarly welcome.

Other actions that can greatly add to your stress is that little "inner voice" that keeps telling you that you "should be " doing something or "should be better" at work/study. The problem with that little voice is that it gets louder and louder the more stress that you find yourself under. As that project/exam nears, that "little voice" becomes a "constant shout". This is another sign that you need to change something and break the cycle.

The first thing to do is organize your tasks. What do you HAVE to get done? What is the time frame? How much have you actually accomplished towards your major task? You can list your tasks on a sheet of paper and rate them as A, B, C in terms of importance. Your A tasks HAVE to be done; B tasks are good to do and C tasks carry little penalty of not done.

Take each A task and figure out how long it will take you accomplish each one. Your study schedule can be arranged around your class schedule and thus you want to have time to preview, listen to lecture, quick review, study and preview... Get your A tasks taken care of first and be sure to put in some "break time". It is not efficient to pencil-in "Study Biochemistry 5 hours" because you will be saturated with Biochemistry after 1 hour (for me it was 50 minutes and I AM a Biochemist!). After one hour, take a ten-minute break, get some water, stretch, walk around, get some fresh air and then come back to your desk refreshed.

Check off your subjects as you get them done. This psychologically gives you a boost because you have a sense of accomplishment. Don't beat yourself because you can't look out the window and recite every enzyme of the Citric Acid Cycle complete with affinity constants. Your goal is to understand your studies well enough to apply them. For example: Sorbitol is an alcohol sugar that is produed by enzymatic/chemical reduction of an aldehyde group on a monosaccharide. It provides sweetness but does not increse blood levels of glucose or insulin. This makes sorbital a good sweetner for diabetics. The concepts are alcohol sugar, elevation of insulin/glucose in a diabetic and reduction of an aldose. In addition, since it contains more -OH groups than other monosaccharides, too much sorbitol can produce diarrhea too. Stop, try to link your lectures and keep the concepts in mind as you study. How does this fit into the big picture? Instead of rote memorization that puts information into your short term memory, go for understanding of concepts that links your short term memory with your long term memory.

Finally, do at least 30 minutes of physical exercise. Do something that you like and vary your routine. Take a brisk walk or walk up two flights of stairs and come down one. Do three 10-minute intervals of physical exertion if you can't find 30 minutes in one block. Lean against the wall and stretch/breathe and laugh. This gets rid of stress and helps to keep you calm and focused. Use your 30-minute exercise period to let your mind go anywhere. Don't try to study during this time, let this be your cheap "play time". Remember "recess" when you were a child in elementary school. You didn't combine "recess" with study back then. Don't combine your exercise with study either for at least 30 minutes. After that, you put on your earphones and listen to drill/study tapes but do at least 30 minutes free of school work.

Keep your life organized as much as possible. Know how much underwear you have and get your laundry done before you run out. Lay out tomorrow's clothes the night before so you have them ready in case you get rushed or oversleep. Pack a light lunch the night before (you can make a PB & J on your study break) instead of loading up on heavy and high fat foods that drag you down and decrease your alertness in the afternoon. Fold your laundry and stretch at the same time.

Finally, get yourself a mantra that you can repeat to yourself over and over when you find that you are starting to hear that "should be " inner voice. You know, the only thing that you "should be" is yourself. Forgive yourself (this means that you give yourself permission to move on) if you make (a mistake or mistakes) and keep moving forward. Just because you did something wrong yesterday is not a good reason to do the same wrong thing today. Change your behavior now and change your thinking now. By doing this, you world will change and you won't know who "Burnout" is.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely amazing post. Specially for a medical student like me. Thanks, and I totally agree with the time managment approach for stuying you mentioned here. I feel like you go through alot of transitions in life. I tweaked my studying style and finally settled on one. Took a whole year!

Anonymous said...

These are good suggestions for time management, which certainally helps to stave off burnout. What I personally find most helpful, though, is something a little different; stop thinking about the future, stop thinking about the past, concentrate my attention on the present moment, and do what I know I need to do at that moment without worrying about things outside my control.

It's a strategy I came to pretty organically, because it worked for me, but it is similar to concepts in Buddhism and in the 12 steps ("one day at a time," "turning it over," etc.) The idea, someone once said, is that there is only the present tense, only most of the time we're too tense to be present.