From burnout to balance: How this medical student did it

I burned out for the first time in my life about three months after starting medical school. The surprising thing was that nothing out of the ordinary happened, I was doing exactly what they told me to do, pre-reading from lecture notes and recommended textbooks, going to lectures and labs, and trying to study and review what I learned that day in the library.

The problem was, that after a 45-minute commute in Los Angeles traffic each way, a few minutes to grab a sandwich at lunch and heat up a frozen dinner at night, my free time was so minimal that I was lucky if I had 5 hours to sleep, let alone have a life.  Without spending time with friends and family, surfing, running, reading for fun, or traveling, it didn’t take long for burnout to arrive.

At the time, I wondered if the ends justify the means? Maybe if I just work really hard now, then it will all pay off in the future? That thought was enough to fuel me through our first “core” block, but after I got my test score back with a C+ grade on it, my hope and optimism deflated. If I had to work this hard and only learned the material well enough for a C+, I wasn’t made for medical school.

While contemplating the logistics of dropping out, I made a deal with myself that I would try my hardest to find a better way of learning this, and if that didn’t work, I’d cut my losses and look for a new career.  I started by interviewing tons of medical students and new residents, I scoured the online student forums to find the best practices, I bought books on how to study in medical school, and then I tried out every strategy I could find.

I tried taking notes in a bunch of different ways and then making notes of those notes, I tried making flashcards, I tried getting copies of the smartest student’s notes, I tried webcasting at double speed, I tried watching online videos, I tried reading review books, I tried audio books, I tried everything I could get my hands on.   I lived my academic life as an experiment, constantly practicing people’s recommendations for studying, keeping what worked, and then trying to improve upon these strategies.

Fortunately, the experiment started to pay off, and the results were far greater than I could have ever imagined. After about three months of putting the best rapid-learning practices to use, my time spent on all medical school related activities dropped from 16 to 18 hrs per day to 2 to 3 hours per day, and despite this, my understanding of the material seemed to exponentially improve.  My grades improved also, and I was amazed to find out I had moved from a C average to getting the highest academic honors my school offered.  When the time to study for the USMLE Step 1 exam came around, I used these same techniques, and I was blown away to score in the top 99.7th percentile.

While I was grateful to have my knowledge of medicine and grades improve, what I am most grateful for was the shift in my state of being. By studying smarter, I was able to create more free time to live a healthier and more balanced life; spending time with loved ones, exercising, volunteering, and enjoying hobbies outside of medicine. With this shift, my burnout disappeared and was replaced by an inner sense of wellbeing. I found that as I took action to live a balanced life in line with my own deepest values, I not only enjoyed my free time, but also really enjoyed my time at school more than I ever had before.  I also noticed the impact that my state of being had on my patients and co-workers. There was a ripple effect. In a state of burnout, I could spread cynicism, fatigue, sarcasm, and hopelessness among those I worked with. In a state of wellbeing, I could spread patience, optimism, hope, and true compassion.

Burnout seems to be a growing epidemic among America’s physicians, with over 50 percent of medical students experiencing burnout for the first time while in school. The impact of burnout is ugly, leading to depression, substance use, lost productivity, and in the worse cases, suicide.  And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. We have more technology and knowledge available to us than ever before, and there is no better time in history for innovation. My dream is for students to learn and practice healthy habits of work-life balance from the beginning of medical school, and to continue these practices throughout residency and beyond.  The greatest tool for me happened to be upgrading the way I study and learn, and yet this is just one part of the solution. What works for you?

David Larson is a resident physician and author of Medical School 2.0: An Unconventional Guide to Learn Faster, Ace the USMLE, and Get into Your Top Choice ResidencyThis article originally appeared in Fulfilled Physicians.

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