It’s the most wonderful time of the year—when medical students finally get a break from the stressful end-of-semester rush. We count down the days until we finish the semester and get to spend quality and stress-free time with our family. However, this perceived stress-free holiday break can often incite anxiety in students who fear falling behind.
Naturally, it’s stressful to step out of your medical school routine and into a new environment filled with people who don’t fully understand the journey medical students are on. Yes, we are on a break, but it is a risk to allow ourselves to ignore our responsibility to stay on top of our material. If we do neglect our studies, we will struggle to get back into our routine when school begins again in January.
If you have ever felt this way, you’re not alone. Many of my peers also spoke about the difficulty of stepping out of our medical school world to enjoy a well-earned break; it’s challenging to balance taking a break with our academic responsibilities.
So, how do you juggle giving yourself a light break while also not falling out of the routines you’ve built for yourself? Here’s what I’ve learned.
The Importance of Breaks
Medical students often need a reminder that breaks are incredibly beneficial to our mental health and overall cognitive functioning. It is necessary for our bodies and minds to experience breaks in order for us to function efficiently.
If we do not allow ourselves to experience calm and stress-free feelings, then the neural pathways allowing us to experience these feelings will weaken, making it more difficult for physical relaxation and restoration. We also benefit from spending quality time with family and friends. Social support has been proven to be neuroprotective and improve cognitive resilience to the negative effects of stress.
Simply spending time enjoying the cheer of the holidays with people you care about can help you recharge. Additionally, a holiday break is a great time to catch up on sleep! A global study found that medical students have lower sleep quality and overall lower average sleep time when compared to non-medical students. With less academic responsibility over holiday break, we can put that extra time towards prioritizing sleep.
Ultimately, breaks are very important for medical students, but how can we take breaks while not building bad habits or falling behind on academics?
How to Enjoy Your Break Without Falling Behind
Here are suggestions for how to enjoy the break you’ve earned after months of hard work in school without feeling the guilt and stress of falling behind on academic responsibilities.
1 | Separate and Write Out Your Goals
Before you go home or travel for the holidays, write a goal sheet with 3 sections: Personal, Academic, and Routine.
1. Personal Goals: List what you want to accomplish in your personal life while home on break. For example:
- Doctors appointments
- Dinner with friends
- Oil changes, car inspections, etc.
- Visit grandparents
- Spend time with family
2. Academic Goals: List what you want to accomplish academically or for your school life while home on break. For example:
- Reviewing material for an upcoming exam
- Pre-reading material for your next unit
- Reviewing a past subject you struggled with
Be sure to create reasonable academic/study goals for your break. It is easy to be overly ambitious when you have a break. Remember that academic goals are only one aspect of your break goals. Being out of town around family and friends creates many temptations.
3. Routine Goals: List what parts of your routine you do not want to “break” from during your break. For example:
Make this list weeks before your break begins to ensure you have the academic mindset and motivation to incorporate your routine into your break. Making this list early also allows it to be motivation for completing your semester, helping you realize how close you are to your well-deserved break.
2 | Create a Schedule and Assign Tasks
Next, look at your list and assign tasks to various days of your break. Repeat this until all tasks are assigned.
- Assigning Goals: You can assign them to the morning or night, allowing for the middle of your day to be free for recreational activities.
- When to Accomplish Goals: Wake up before your family does and knock out your goals, OR head to your room at night a little bit earlier to give yourself time to accomplish your goals before heading to bed.
In order to meet your goals, you will likely have to sacrifice sleeping in late or TV time with family at night.
If you use this method, realize that you are available to your family and friends early in the day or later in the day—not both. Scheduling only a few tasks each day allows you flexibility for the sporadic recreational activities that may arise throughout your break.
3 | Ensure Family and Friends Are Aware of Your Availability
It can be difficult for family and friends who are not currently studying to understand why you still need to work during your break. Be clear to everyone about your commitments and availability.
It’s best to be upfront with them so that they know what to expect and aren’t surprised when you disappear to complete some work over the holidays. For example, if you choose early every morning to work on academics, let your loved ones know you’ll be busy and can’t be disturbed during this time.
If you have friends in school or family members who enjoy reading, ask them if they want to read their own materials alongside you. You could also invite them to breakfast at a cafe where you can make it a study date. That way you can knock out some work and while still spending time with loved ones.
While breaks are something we look forward to as medical students, it’s stressful to try to figure out how to relax and recover with loved ones while still maintaining the responsibilities of your education and routine. But with proper planning and balance, you can have it all, and you will head back to school feeling rejuvenated, on schedule, and on top of things!