Residency has BRUTAL hours, 80-100 hours per week at times, so the better you are at streamlining chores, organizing and maximizing your free time, the more you can enjoy it and attempt to have somewhat of a life outside of work.
Apparently I didn’t know how well I was doing with a balanced life until several people commented on it, and I figured I would try to share what I did.
This post is about Practical Tips for streamlining chores and efficiency, and can be used by anyone who works long hours, not just those in medicine.
Click here for the post on Psychological Tips and Tricks to survive residency in particular.
1) Get up quickly.
Sleep is precious, but did you know that snoozing can actually be bad for you?? The extra fragmented sleep is not restful, and there is also something called “Sleep Inertia.” It confuses your body and you end up more groggy and fuzzy-headed than if you had just gotten up right away.
So if you want to get 30 more minutes of sleep, just set your alarm for 30 minutes later rather than hitting the snooze button several times.
I thankfully am someone who can just drag myself up as soon as my alarm rings. Even if I’m extremely hazy from sleepiness, I just splash water on my face/start washing my face to help me wake up.
For those with more difficulty, set your alarm on the other side of the room, even somewhere high up that forces you to get a chair to stand on to reach it, which will wake you up.
There is even a special kind of alarm clock that automatically MOVES around so you’ll have to find it each time you hear a snooze alarm!!
2) Streamline your morning routine as much as you can.
Know where everything is so you’re not fumbling or searching, try to lay out your clothes the night before, and try to multi-task with simple tasks if possible.
For example, I microwave my oatmeal or heat up water while I’m brushing my teeth. I’m not a regular coffee or tea drinker, but you can make coffee/tea while brushing your teeth as well.
I also try to scrub in my facial cleanser with one hand while brushing with the other. Or comb my hair while I brush my teeth.
If you shower in the mornings, brush your teeth in the shower while your conditioner or shampoo is in your hair.
I know these sound basic, but some people may not have thought of these. If you’re not good at them, then practice! If you save even 1 minute every day, think of how those will add up over the years!
3) Minimize travel time between chores and tasks.
For example, stopping by the grocery store or gym on the way home from work, assuming they are on the way.
Even if not, we all know how time somehow seems to get away from us if we go home first and have somewhere to be later. Or we lose motivation or energy, and wind up becoming a hermit who only leaves the house for work. I always kept a set of gym clothes and shoes in my car, to eliminate as many barriers as possible.
Some people I knew even worked out during their shift. I will never forget that quiet night shift on the labor floor where one attending physician invited us to join him in the lecture room where he had projected a P90X workout onto the screen!
I don’t recommend that since you don’t know when you’ll be needed at work and you won’t know if you’ll have enough time to change and shower afterwards. But a 5-10 minute break can be perfect for a yoga routine or some stretches that won’t leave you too sweaty.
4) Take mental breaks.
Research recommends taking mental breaks anyway, since your performance is better if you take controlled breaks. I’ve seen so many colleagues who have been typing away at the same patient note for hours, their eyes glazed over and fingers barely moving.
I’ve always been a fan of efficiency and the “work smart” principle over “work hard.” If I’m well-rested and can get the same amount of work done in 50 minutes by taking a 10 minute break, why wouldn’t I choose that, over working straight for those 60 minutes but at a slower pace?
One study’s results recommended working for 52 minutes, then breaking for 17 minutes. This was the magic formula that worked for the top 10% of a company, but your personal combo will likely vary.
Your brain, like any other muscle, needs breaks to rest and then it can perform better! Think of it as doing sets of reps while weight-training!
5) Try to leave work at work, separate home and work spheres.
This was extremely helpful for me, but I know this doesn’t work for everyone. I found that I tend to be more efficient when I’m in a “work” place and have fewer distractions, compared to trying to do work at home.
So no matter how late I had to stay, I always finished almost all my notes before going home (this is why packing dinner helped!).
I knew that more work would pile on the next day and it would all quickly become overwhelming, and confusing because I may mis-remember which patient said what!
Sometimes I even got confused within the same day, since I sometimes saw over 20 patients. That’s why I tried so hard to not save all the notes to be written at the end of the day. If this does end up happening, I made sure to write little notes either on paper or in the medical record for each patient, to keep my thoughts straight.
6) Don’t wait around for laundry.
I’m sure no one waits around downstairs for the laundry machine to finish, but make sure to use that time productively. Or even, if you know you’ll be going out for a short period of time, start the laundry, then it’ll be done when you come back and you can deal with it on the way out and back in. You can also save time by skipping the dryer and hanging the clothes up to dry in an open closet (this way you won’t have to fold them either!)
In general, minimizing the amount of idle/waiting time for chores when you’re working crazy hours will help you find more time in your free time. I don’t mean not taking mindful breaks or meditating or purposefully just doing nothing to relax. Savor those moments, but then try to do the things you have to get done as efficiently as possible.
7) Exercise regularly.
To operate at your best mentally and emotionally, you need to work your body out physically. You might feel you don’t have time, but you actually save time because you’ll be more alert and productive after exercise.
The American Heart Association recommends that every week, you get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise.
You can break it down however you want, be it 30 minutes 5x/week or 50 min 3x/week.
I personally hate running and traditional workout routines since I get bored easily. I got my exercise through sports (tennis, badminton, ultimate frisbee) and dancing (usually at home following Youtube videos).
You can also do really short, 5-10-minute sessions whenever you find some time. There are so many apps out there for 7 minute workouts you can fit in anywhere, anytime.
Exercise also effectively treats depression, studies show regular exercise is just as effective as taking antidepressants!! They also enhance the effects of antidepressants
When over 1/3 of all medical trainees suffer from depression, anxiety, and/or other mental health conditions, exercise is one of the best tools we can have!
8) Prioritize good nutrition.
It really helps you function at your best, physically and mentally. Brain fog is real!! What you eat does matter!! It’s been found that certain foods are particularly good for brain functioning and memory, while others cause quick highs and bad crashes.
I’ll do a separate post on healthy eating and reading food labels, but I’ll just share here what I did.
Breakfast was always thought to be the most important meal of the day, to jumpstart your metabolism and help you lose or maintain a healthy weight. However, recent studies have found that these are myths. It does not matter whether you eat or skip breakfast; it’s the overall caloric consumption in a 24 hour period that matters, not when you eat.
So if you’re not hungry in the mornings, no need to force yourself to eat breakfast!
I was usually hungry when I woke up, so I always had breakfast. Greek yogurt with fruit was my lazy meal of choice, or a high-protein cereal such as Kashi GoLean Original. If I didn’t have enough protein or healthy fat in any meal or snack, I would be hungry again in a couple of hours, so I always tried to have a balanced meal/snack.
You can also make simple, healthy recipes the night before – overnight oatmeal, breakfast burritos, etc. If you have a long commute, something you can eat with one hand like 3-ingredient banana pancakes can even be eaten while you walk. I don’t recommend trying to eat breakfast while you drive though!!
Lunch can be so easily overlooked, especially if you’re busy. But it’s important to eat frequently enough throughout the day (I do at least every 4 hours) to keep your energy up and brain functioning well.
It’s healthiest to mass cook on the weekend and pack lunches for the week, though I know this takes effort.
I would make a big batch of stew, a huge stir-fry, bake a whole salmon or chicken, and then divide them up into individual meal sizes for the week.
Whenever I ate out at restaurants, I would bring leftovers the next day, or combine a meat/protein restaurant dish with some veggies which tend to be quicker and easier to cook.
Bringing your own food also ensures that you have food, if you’re so busy that you don’t have time to run to the cafeteria or wait in line!
There are often no scheduled breaks, and the lunch hour in between clinic office sessions is often cut into by running behind seeing patients since they are crammed into 15-minute appointments.
Don’t be shy to ask someone to cover for you for 15-20 minutes while you go grab food (or use the restroom). It’s your human right to stay functional!!
Many residency programs offer a lunch lecture at least once a week, which helps out a lot! It’s one less meal to think about, and you get to study a bit/further your education while you eat.
As for dinner, you don’t always know when you’ll be able to leave work, so I would sometimes pack dinner as well and store it in a fridge, or pack a sandwich that didn’t need refrigeration (such as peanut or almond butter). Then if I was working late, I wouldn’t have to worry about having to cook or prepare food when I got home.
I would typically eat some of my leftover food from mass-cooking or eating out, or whip up something quickly.
My family had instilled in me the philosophy of “cooking should take no longer than 30 minutes” and they multi-tasked well and somehow always had a bunch of dishes made within that timeframe.
So I can have a soup boiling and something baking in the oven while stir-frying on the stove. There are so many recipes out there, but not enough lessons in cooking multi-tasking, in my opinion!!
Some examples and tips:
1. Cut ingredients on the cutting board while you’re pre-heating the oven or boiling water.
2. While something is cooking, you don’t need to hover over it all the time. You can cut up more ingredients or start to wash some dishes/the cutting board and clean the counter. Set a timer if you’re afraid you’ll forget to check on it.
3. Get creative. Consider re-using things, such as water you drained from pasta to boil eggs next.
4. Take advantage of machinery if you can afford them – a rice cooker, a Crockpot for slow-cooking over hours while you’re working, an air-fryer, a blender with single-serving cups built in, even automatic vegetable choppers! There are so many kitchen aids now, and more coming out!
I admit, sometimes I was so exhausted that I didn’t eat or just ate a bowl of cereal or something else simple (peanut butter with fruit), and just went to bed early. I had enough calories and nutrition from earlier in the day because I packed a lot of snacks and ate throughout the day, so this worked for me.
Lastly, I acted like a typical Asian mom and always had snacks on hand. Snacking is so important when you have an irregular work schedule like in residency!!
Not all snacks are equal though – I always aimed for enough protein and healthy fat in my snacks so they would be filling (such as peanut butter and an apple, cottage cheese and fruit, carrots and hummus, or a well-balanced snack bar).
Also, there are always sandwiches!! They’re so fast and easy to make, for any meal or snack, and if you learn enough varieties, you won’t get bored.
Some of my colleagues also just drank meal replacement shakes throughout the day. Whatever works for you, do it. Just make sure you’re getting enough nutrition and calories! Vitamins and supplements are better than nothing, though they may not be absorbed as effectively as real food.
Thanks for reading! If you thought this was helpful, please share with other busy people working crazy hours!