3 Ways to Carve Out Time for Hobbies During Professional School

In the summer of 2017, when my gap year started, I vowed to write a first draft of novel before I started medical school. To everyone’s surprise — including my own — I managed to write 140,000 words with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, even though the novel is nowhere near polished enough for a publisher.

It goes without saying that one of my biggest fears since starting medical school is that I would fall behind in almost any hobby that I have — that my plants will die, my blog will wither, and my novel (handwritten in journals — I explain that in another post) will collect dust on some shelf while I’m busy learning the brachial plexus and memorizing the names of drugs.

I won’t pretend that the first two months did, in fact, involve the sidelining of many of hobbies. I barely blogged, and I barely wrote. My plants survived (mostly — cross-country travel was hard on my baby toes) but I certainly wasn’t buying new plants, potting, repotting, and experimenting like I normally do.

Now that life has calmed down — a bit — I’ve been able to get my life back in order. Writing (both creatively and blogging) have been put back on my priority list.

The question is: HOW does anyone find time for their hobbies? Not only do I go to school, but I tutor, and I have a board position at a clinic. It often seems like there’s not enough time in the day to study, let alone do the things I want to do.

Fortunately, I’ve found a couple ways to incorporate my hobbies back into my life.

If a task can’t be perfected, set a time limit.

One of the hardest lessons of medical school is accepting that you cannot learn everything that is thrown at you. Even when your professors tell you exactly what parts of the slide deck you need to memorize, you physically cannot memorize it all. Add to this the professors who don’t tell you what you need to know and what you don’t — meaning that you have twice the material to sort through — it’s easy to get trapped in a never ending cycle of trying to learn everything.

I’m still struggling with this never ending cycle, but I’m getting better. At Columbia, a 70% score on the test means that you are where you need to be. The classes are pass/fail, so it doesn’t matter if I get a 70% or a 100% — it will have no bearing my rank, my residencies, and it certainly doesn’t have any bearing on the quality of medical care I will provide as an MD. It takes some adjustment, though, to not study the material to completion. I’m not even aiming for a certain grade. I just don’t feel comfortable not understanding a part of the material.

The first cycle, I overstudied and got As on all my exams — including a 98 and 100 on my anatomy written test and anatomy final. I absolutely do not need to score this high. This last cycle, which ended a week ago, I studied a lot less and scored in the mid-B range. Even these scores are higher than I need. Although I won’t study for a 70 (you always want some wiggle room!) I will also allow myself a little more freetime during the weekends before exams, which in both cycles were completely filled with me consolidating my knowledge in all my subjects.

This cycle, I will continue to set time limits for me to study. I have to study, obviously, but I don’t need to spend 4 hours learning every detail in a lecture when I could glean the important information in 2. Instead of setting goals like “master the skull and neck” on Tuesday afternoons, I should set goals of “study anatomy for 3 hours.” After 3 hours, even if I don’t know every detail, I’m allowed to stop — and do other important things, like chores, self-care, and pursuing hobbies.

Studying with time limits does require a more efficient way of studying, of course. You can’t start at the beginning of a lecture and learn everything in minute detail, virtually guaranteeing that you won’t even glance at the end of the lecture at all. You have to go through the lecture and grasp basic concepts and relationships, and then go a level deeper, and then — if there’s time — start looking at the nitty-gritty details.

Some people (I’m looking at you, SDN 😒) would say that it’s wrong not to memorize every fact, claiming that the number of facts you memorize somehow has a casual effect on how quality of a doctor you will one day be.

But remember: recognizing the symptoms of cholinergic crisis will save a patient one day, sure. But no patient will care if you remember the name of every enzyme/ intermediate in the cholinergic system — and that’s the difference between these two methods of studying.

I’ll write more about this type of studying in the future. For now, though, let’s talk about one of the other ways I make sure to carve out enough time to pursue hobbies while in medical school.

Mornings are for me.

I’ll admit, I’m a morning person. I’m usually awake at 6AM, even if I sometimes try to go back to sleep. I realized that my mornings — consisting of coffee and lazing on the couch reading the news and scrolling through Facebook — actually contained a significant amount of time that I can use for ME. It was all about claiming that time.

I have to set myself up for success. Having something prepared for me to accomplish — whether that’s a book set on the nightstand waiting to be devoured, or my laptop charged and ready to be pulled into bed with me so that I can get my writing game on, still tucked into the covers — means that I can spend the mornings doing something that I like to do, without actually taking time away from anything else I think is important.

Obviously, waking up at 6AM to write doesn’t work if you’re not a morning person. I’d challenge you, then, to claim 30 minutes to an hour of the day when you are usually awake. What about writing or drawing right before bed? Or reading during your lunch break, or another time when you usually scroll through social media (or instead of working through you break!!). I attribute my success to writing my rough draft during my gap year to those 30-minute lunch break sessions where I would get out a pen and write. It’s your time — claim it!

Pick a time once a week to make hobbies a priority.

The first two tips for carving out time could be renamed as Be Efficient With Your Work Time and Be Productive in Your Me Time. This last one might as well be called Be Selfish With Your Spare Time.


“Selfish” has negative connotations. I chose the word because I know that’s what a lot of us already think when we take time for ourselves. Using a euphemism won’t change the fact that a lot of us feel guilty when we read instead of doing the dishes, pursue hobbies instead of catching up on emails, or — as this meme so succinctly puts it —  breathe instead of studying.

Habitually letting other responsibilities fall through because you’re doing something else might be a sign of a problem. But it’s really only a problem when not keeping up with certain responsibilities causes harm or negative consequences. Letting dishes pile up for a month until there’s a mold or other health concern? A problem. Always leaving dishes in the sink Friday night because I’ve taken the evening off to do what I want to do? Not a problem.

Similarly, getting a B on all my exams instead of an A because I am taking the time to write, read, and blog is not a problem, and not something I should ever feel guilty about. The same applies to many walks of life: hiring a babysitter so that you can have a night to yourself, or waiting until the morning to answer non-emergency emails.

You are allowed to be selfish with your time every once in a while — and things can be selfish without requiring guilt. I try to be selfish with my time once a week. For me, that time is scheduled: Friday evenings, I don’t do any work, and I don’t even feel pressured to join happy hour antics with my friends if I don’t feel up to it. I can order out, put my feet up, and watch Netflix. Or — more often — I can make a cup of hot chocolate and get some writing in. I won’t answer emails (unless I’m expecting something very important). And I certainly won’t be learning any cranial nerves.

Not everyone can schedule this selfish time, of course. Some people may keep Sunday mornings to themselves, but others may not have a spot open the same time every week. And that’s totally fine! It’s just important to remember that it’s also totally fine to taken some time, no matter how regularly scheduled, and dedicate it to yourself.

You also don’t have to force yourself to pursue hobbies during these times. If what you really, really need to make it through the week is a morning where you’re allowed to sleep until noon? Take it.

An important lesson from this third tip is that you can’t pursue your work and hobbies if you don’t take care of yourself. Carving out time for self-care is just as important as carving out time for your hobbies, and these activities often go hand-in-hand.

I also want to take a moment to say that not everyone has the option to try out my tips. As someone who has been a caregiver and had responsibilities beyond just school and work — responsibilities that couldn’t be put off — I know that it’s hard to carve out time to do the dishes, let alone for self-care or hobbies. Some parents are working third jobs to make ends meet. Even being able to think about carving out time for hobbies is a privilege not everyone has, and I would never want to suggest otherwise.

I now, however, have time for my hobbies — if I make the time — and I am very grateful. I’m interested to know what you think of these tips. Helpful? Or too specific to my life, responsibilities, and hobbies?  Let me know! I’m excited to hear from you.




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