​Time Management

Balancing your studies with your personal life is critical to your success as a medical student. Lectures and studies will take a tremendous amount of time over your four years, so learning how to maximize your use of time is paramount to excelling in academics while also remaining healthy in other capacities of your life. Below are some tips and evidence-supported discussion of time management skills as a medical student. 


Urgent vs. Important: Prioritization  

Most students know how to create a “to do” list, which is an important first step. However, to manage your time most efficiently, you must also prioritize those tasks. To guide that, try categorizing each of your “to do” list items using the descriptions below. Urgency is about time-sensitivity, while importance has to do with a task’s value to you. 

  • Urgent and Important: These tasks get our attention, but if most of your time is spent here, it can be stressful. Examples: crisis or pressing problem (overflowing toilet), impending deadline (exam tomorrow). 

  • Important, but Not Urgent: Time spent here is the most gratifying! These tasks tend to become urgent if you procrastinate (keeping up in all your courses). 

  • Urgent, but Not Important: These tasks are time sensitive, but don’t matter that much to you. Delegate or postpone these. Examples: most interruptions (visitors stopping by phone calls), other digital communications (texts, tweets, FB posts, etc.) 

  • Not Urgent or Important: Spend little to no time on these tasks. Dump! Examples: reading junk email, time-fillers (mindless channel & internet surfing, game apps) 

Schedule your high-priority tasks first. Focus on important tasks, rather than just the urgent. If you run out of time before you fit in all your priorities, revisit your tasks to see if you can do them differently. Look for tasks that can be combined, postponed, or cut altogether. Remember, self-care is important and can vary in urgency. Below is a compilation of tips that might help to improve your time-management skills. 

  • Getting Started  

  • Plan your week ahead, then fill in what happens as the week progresses – be honest! 

  • This often exposes over- and under-estimating, to help you create a more realistic schedule.  

  • You may need to adjust some priorities (hold on to self-care, look for timewasters to eliminate). 

  • Semester, Weekly, Daily Planning  

  • At the start of each semester, note when important school and life events will occur, and plan for them accordingly. 

  • Take time each week (Sunday evening?) and daily (before bed or in the morning) to plan your schedule and adjust as needed. 

  • Prioritize to-be-learned material  

  • You probably won’t have time to learn everything – prioritize the most important information. 

  • Manage your study periods  

  • When? Where? Will it take travel time to get there? 

  • Are you an early bird or a night owl? As much as possible, pick your most productive time to tackle the most challenging material. Schedule less mentally taxing tasks (chores, exercise) when your brain needs a break.  

  • Where? 

  • This might require experimentation. Do you need complete silence, all by yourself, or are you better with/near others? Is your focus better at home, on campus, or elsewhere?  

  • How long? 

  • Optimum concentration is shorter than you think. For every 50 minutes of study, break for 10 minutes. Or, try 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off; repeat for 4 cycles, then take a longer break. When you’re scheduled to be on task, be ON; save distractions for break time. 

  • Other important commitments (family/relationships, community, errands/chores)  

  • Plan time to relax and replenish your coping reservoir at least weekly if not daily. 

  • Expect the unexpected  

  • Leave some flex time in your weekly schedule, if possible 

  • Or re-prioritize tasks and adjust as best you can 


Adversaries to Time-Management  

In addition to life’s normal distractions and struggles, medical students also commonly face two major adversaries to their success: procrastination and perfectionism.  



Virtually every student experiences an episode of procrastination through their time in academia – medical students are no different. However, because of the intensity and rigor of medical school curriculum, procrastination has greater consequences than undergraduate procrastination. Why do we procrastinate, and what can we do about it? 

  • Task is unpleasant  

  • Get it over with. Tackle your least favorite subject first, then follow it up with your favorite. 

  • Bribe yourself. Promise yourself a small reward upon completion of a study period. 

  • Find a review partner/group. Knowing you’ll be getting together with another to review will provide you with external motivation to prepare. Peer pressure works! 

  • Scare yourself. Remind yourself often of the unpleasant consequences of procrastination. 

  • Task is overwhelming  

  • Break it up. Identify smaller, more manageable, concrete steps involved in completing the overall task. 

  • Process vs product. Set a time-on-task (process) goal rather than a task completion (product) goal. 

  • Don’t know where to start  

  • Start small. Start with something you can knock out relatively quickly, to build momentum. 

  • Does it really matter? Just start! Vow to study for just 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30 minutes, etc. Getting started is often the hardest part. 

Procrastination can become a habit, and habits aren’t broken overnight. Keep trying! Self-discipline, usually required to avoid procrastination, can also be developed just like any other habit, through practice. 



Perfectionism can be defined as the setting of unrealistically demanding goals, and the tendency to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable. 

Perfectionism can be a form of procrastination, such as delaying the start of a task until you’ve found the perfect way to accomplish it or holding back the completion of a task because it’s not yet perfect. Pursuing a perfect solution will probably end up doing you less good than accepting an effective solution, since attempting perfection wastes valuable time. 

Understanding the difference between perfection and excellence is important. Perfectionists strive for impossible goals, while pursuers of excellence enjoy meeting high standards that are within reach. Improving your ability to know when “enough is enough” will help you let go of perfectionism. Perfectionists tend to focus on product to the exclusion of process. Your educational journey is a process, not just an end destination. Realize that progress is more important than perfection. 

Some students allow perfectionism to get in the way of effective time use, and therefore effective learning. Even though drawing is a great way to learn anatomy, some students resist trying it because they feel they aren’t perfect artists. Other students spend too much time writing and re-writing their notes, trying to get them perfectly neat. These students quickly find themselves falling behind. 

Strive for effective, not perfect! Don’t wait for conditions to be perfect to get started. Do it now, get it done, and keep moving on your journey. Take time at the end of each day to savor your accomplishments.  


Remedies for Time-Management Problems 

If you find yourself struggling with a lack of time in the day, there are plenty of ways to help you keep track of your schedule and remove negative habits impeding your success.  


Improving Focus, Boosting Concentration 

Your learning is greatly impacted by your ability to direct your attention to a single activity, namely studying. So, how can you achieve better focus and concentration? Effectively dealing with distractions in your study environment, both external and internal, and actively engaging with to-be-learned material are important factors to consider. 

Deal Effectively with Distractions: 

  • External  

  • Environmental – Select a place where there's nothing to do but study. 

  • Digital Devices – No TV, silence your phone, turn off notifications, lock down your browser if you need to. Stop attempting to multitask! 

  • Auditory – Use ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones. Background instrumental music and/or white noise help some students better concentrate. 

  • Visual – Try a study carrel or face a wall. Pick a spot with as few visual distractions as possible. 

  • Physical – Pick a spot where you aren't uncomfortable, but not too comfortable either. 

  • Internal  

  • Fatigue – Get adequate sleep! Loss of sleep hurts attention (also executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity). 

  • Hunger – Eat healthily at most (if not all) meals, pack nutritious snacks, stay hydrated. 

  • Physical discomfort – Get regular exercise, move around during study breaks. 

  • "I just can't make myself" or "I just don't wanna 

  • Pomodoro technique: commit to focused concentration for 25 minutes. Set a timer; begin and do not stop until the timer sounds. Take a 5-minute break. Repeat for a total of four cycles; take a longer break. 

  • Distracting thoughts  

  • Write them down – Jot down nagging thoughts that pop up while studying, so that you can address them later (on a break), then quickly refocus. 

  • Boredom  

  • Real life examples – Look up a case study that might help bring this "boring" concept to life for you! 

  • Mental fatigue  

  • Schedule frequent breaks (10 minutes for every hour of study), during which you change environment and move! 

  • Change subjects/topics frequently – We pay better attention to novelty. 

Importance of Self-Care 

All the demands of graduate and professional education can feel like being caught in a riptide – which can seriously challenge well-being. Self-care in the face of extreme time and mental energy demands is sometimes counterintuitive but crucial. Taking care of yourself is one of the most important factors that will contribute to your success. 

Maintaining balance through self-care helps you manage stress, prevent burnout, learn more effectively, and stay healthy. Your non-school time is indeed limited, so spend it wisely doing things that matter most – self-care activities that replenish your coping reservoir. 

  • Regular Exercise 

  • One of the first activities that many students sacrifice – don’t! 

  • Research suggests that devoting 20-40 minutes a day for sustained physical activity improves learning and grades more than using that same time for additional study. 

  • Reduces stress, clears the mind, boosts energy. 

  • Improves concentration, comprehension, and learning. 

  • Causes the brain to create more nerve cells (neurogenesis), makes those nerves stronger and helps them withstand stress, and improves neurotransmitter function, which helps the brain work better. 

Adequate Sleep 

  • Concentration, working memory, mathematical capacity, and logical reasoning are all aspects of cognitive functioning compromised by sleep deprivation. 

  • Maintain enough sleep (6-8 hours per night) or your exam scores may suffer. Getting less than 6 hours sleep for 5 consecutive nights will result in cognitive performance equivalent to 48 hours of continuous sleep deprivation. 

  • A healthy sleep can boost learning significantly; especially learning that involves a procedure. 

  • Sleep appears to be important for consolidating the day’s learning; interruption of sleep disrupts the learning cycle. 

  • Research suggests that a 30- to 45-minute nap in mid-afternoon can boost cognitive performance, lasting 6 hours and longer. 

  • You’re better served by going to sleep if staying up another hour for study will put you into the sleep deprivation category. 

Proper Nutrition 

  • Take the time to eat a well-balanced, healthy diet. 

  • Gives your body the best chance of fighting off illness; getting sick will only make your life harder. 

  • Gives you more energy and better ability to focus on your studies. 

Stress Management 

Stress is generally considered synonymous with distress, and Merriam-Webster.com defines it as “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.” or “something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety”. Yet not all stress is harmful. Mild to moderate stress can be helpful and good when it motivates and energizes you to accomplish more, and intermittent stress enables you to become stronger for future stresses. However, excessive stress can be detrimental to your physical and mental health. Stress is an inevitable part of life, so it’s crucial for you to develop strategies for keeping stress at a manageable level. 


  • While stress is universal, solutions are individual. Some of these approaches may make sense for you; others may not be a good fit. Also be aware that some of these strategies might be new skills for you and thus will require practice over time to be effective. 

  • Prioritize self-care to prevent burnout (regular exercise, adequate sleep, healthy eating). 

  • Recognize and accept your limits.  

  • Limit co-curricular activities and eliminate timewasters to make time for more effective relaxation activities like exercise or time with family and friends. 

  • Ask for help with and/or delegate tasks where you can. 

  • Build relaxation time into your daily schedule. 

  • Utilize relaxation techniques such as deep belly breathing, visualizing a calming scene, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga, and prayer. 

  • Talk with friends or family or write in a journal about what stresses you. 

  • Remind yourself to take deep belly breaths periodically in times of stress, such as during exams or practical. 

  • Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as abusing alcohol and other drugs, over-caffeinating, isolating yourself, or harming yourself or others. 

Sustained or chronic stress can lead to depression in susceptible people. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of your stress level and common signs of depression including fatigue and decreased energy, insomnia or excessive sleeping, irritability, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or hopelessness, loss of interest in friends or previously enjoyable activities, change in appetite, physical complaints that do not ease with treatment, and suicidal thoughts.