Enjoying Holiday Breaks Without the “Break”


It’s that time of year again! The time where we 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. A common issue is that this perceived stress-free holiday break actually incites anxiety in some students who fear falling behind.

There is some stress naturally associated with stepping out of your medical school routine and into a new environment filled with people who don’t fully understand the commitment to learning and the journey that medical students are on. Yes, we are on a break, but it is a risk to allow ourselves to ignore our responsibility of staying on top of our material because if we do, then we struggle to get back into our routine when school begins again in January. If you have ever felt this way, you are not alone. Many of my peers have also voiced the difficulty of stepping out of our medical school world to enjoy a well-earned break while not quite knowing the best way to balance taking a break and staying in touch with our academic responsibilities. 


The Importance of Breaks

Medical students need to be reminded that breaks are incredibly beneficial to our mental health and overall optimal cognitive functioning. According to neuroscience research, it is a necessity for our bodies to experience breaks so that it may itself. 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 time with family and friends. Social support has proven to be neuroprotective and improve cognitive resilience to the negative effects of stress. Stress experts claim that people are increasingly motivated to achieve goals following a vacation. Simply spending time enjoying the cheer of the holidays with traditions and past times allows for a healthy recharge. Additionally, 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 have extra time that can be put towards prioritizing sleep. Ultimately, breaks are very important for us as medical students, but then how can we keep from falling behind on academics?


How to Enjoy Break without “Falling Behind”

Here are some suggestions for how to enjoy the rejuvenating break that you have earned after months of hard work in school without feeling the guilt and stress of falling behind on academic responsibilities.


Before you go home or travel for the holidays, write a goal sheet with 3 sections: Personal, Academic, Routine

1. Personal Goals: List what you want to accomplish in your personal life while home on break (*examples below*)

  • Doctors appointments
  • Dinner with friends
  • Oil changes, car inspections, etc
  • Visit my grandparents
  • Spend time with family
  • Haircut

2. Academic Goals: List what you want to accomplish academically or for your school life while home on break (*examples below*)

  • Reviewing material for an upcoming exam
  • Prereading material for your next unit
  • Reviewing a past subject you struggled with

*Pro Tip: Be sure to create reasonable academic/study goals for your break. It is easy to be overly ambitious when you are out of town with the temptations of various activities.*

3. Routine Goals: List what parts of your routine you do not want to “break” from during your break (*examples below*)

  • Exercise
  • Anki (flashcards that use spaced repetition to ensure that the information remains in your memory)
  • Journaling
  • Reading before bed
  • Daily Meditations

*Pro Tip: Make this list weeks before your break begins to ensure that you have the academic mindset and motivation to incorporate school work into your break! Making this list early also allows it to be a motivation for completing your semester, forcing you to realize how close you are to your well deserved break!*


Then, look at your list and assign tasks to various days of your break. Repeat 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 in a few tasks to each day allows you flexibility for the sporadic recreational activities that may arise throughout your break.

*Pro Tip: If you have friends in school or family members who enjoy reading, invite them to breakfast at a cafe where you can make it a study date. That way you can knock out some work and spend time with loved ones*


While breaks are something we look forward to as medical students, it’s stress to try to figure out how to relax and recover with loved ones while still maintaining the responsibilities of your education and your routine. But with proper planning, you can masterfully have it all, and you will head back to school feeling rejuvenated, still on schedule, and on top of things!


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