What is Balance in Medical School?

I was talking to my friends Matt and Arjun the other day and they mentioned that on their way to a seminar given by Arthur Kleinman, author of the book What Really Matters, they were making their own list of what really matters the most. At the top of their list was health (e.g. eating, exercising and sleeping well), followed by important relationships and friendships in their lives, then school, and finally global health “stuff.” What they found funny, though, was that in actual practice this list was in reverse.

I feel the same way. I came into medical school wanting to lead a “balanced” life. In other words, I didn’t want to spend all my time on school. I wanted to balance working and socializing, which sometimes go together, with personal time of growing spiritually, talking to my girlfriend Elaine, staying healthy, and resting. I thought that this kind of lifestyle would make me healthier and happier, as captured by this pie chart:

Unfortunately my life right now looks more like this:

Perhaps this is not surprising and also not as extreme as it could be. I’m in medical school after all and I also don’t think I’m alone. For us first years, this is what a typical schedule at HMS looks like:

7:30am – wake up, shower and eat breakfast

8:00am-12:30pm – lab, lecture and tutorial

12:30pm-1:30pm – some talk with free lunch

1:30pm-3:30pm – class (only 2 days out of the week)

3:30pm-6:00pm – workout/meetings/hang out

6:00pm-7:00pm – some talk with free dinner

7:00pm-12:00am (or 3:00am) – study/IMs/workout/meetings/hang out

On paper that doesn’t look too bad. Just like in college, we have 8-10 hours to pack in homework, extracurriculars, friends, projects, meetings, events, and sleep. But after 3 months of school, I look back and see that I’m spending more time with meetings, projects and other extracurriculars, sacrificing working out, God and sleep. There are many days when I get back to my room at 11pm, needing to start work and wondering where the day went.

I’ve realized now that what I meant by leading a “balanced” life is less about being healthy or happy, but more about wanting to do everything. There’s a subtle difference. The former is supposed to foster a physical, mental and spiritual harmony and wellbeing, while the latter is more about, well, trying to do everything. It’s understandable. A lot of us got to where we are today by working hard and trying to be “well-rounded.” Dr. Pauline Chen describes it well in her book Final Exam when she writes, “I knew that I would want to use my professions to help people. Most of my classmates were no different. We were an odd group, idealistic, but intensely obsessive and competitive enough to have survived the grueling premedical curriculum.”

After Social Medicine lecture last week, Professor Paul Farmer shared how many of his colleagues are feeling burned out. This made me think. While I care deeply about certain issues and want to take advantage of the opportunities and resources in medical school, I also recognize the importance of cultivating a habit of rest and not neglecting other important parts of the pie chart in my life. I could see myself going down this road first as a student, then as an intern and physician, always sleep-deprived, working and, dare I say it, “unbalanced.”

So what is balance in medical school? I don’t have the answers, but I think I can start by asking myself this question: “What really matters the most to me?”

One Response to “What is Balance in Medical School?”
  1. Arjun says:

    im only now reading this post, elu. its as evident now as ever before. as second year kicks off, we will have to help each other maintain “balance,” or as you aptly say, prioritize what really matters!

    congrats on kicking off the college tour! so proud of you 🙂


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