Think Like a Physician to Avoid Procrastinating in Medical School

Combat a procrastination habit by focusing on taking the first small step toward completing assignments.

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Focusing on the learning process rather than perfection can help medical students overcome procrastination habits.

There are various causes of procrastination. It is critically important for medical school students to be honest with themselves and periodically self-reflect to consider if this problematic behavior is occurring. Once the cause of procrastination is identified, students can begin treatment.

A common reason for procrastination in medical school is the belief that every test, paper or assignment result must be perfect. But humans are not perfect. Students can try hard, but constant perfection isn't going to happen.

Procrastinating over a fear of a flawed result must be attacked quickly before a huge amount of time is lost. Waiting too long can actually make fears of failure come true.

Once accepted to medical school, try combating procrastination by starting to think and work like a physician. This is a time to learn for the sake of learning.

Doctors try to do their best with every patient. You can't procrastinate or people can die. You have to do what seems like the best thing in that moment. Decisions are required at times to save a life, even if the solution isn't perfect.

For example, failure to complete a task such as charting a patient means the doctor on call won't be able to determine what you did or what the next step should be if the patient ends up in the emergency room.

[Understand why students drop out of medical school.]

Another cause of procrastination comes from making an unrealistic comparison to your classmates, instead of just focusing on your own efforts.

During medical school, you will be given opportunities to do research with your professors, sometimes required but often not. Students could be invited to watch procedures in the operating room that last for many hours.

If a medical school project is voluntary and you are too busy, it is better to say no than to let someone talk you into doing it when you don't have time.

[Consider the implications of physician burnout.]

Students might feel they can't say no, but rather than communicating this, they say yes without fully considering, renegotiating or acknowledging they didn't believe it could be accomplished.

If you don't ask, you won't know if the offer is negotiable, or if you will be able to see the same thing in a week or two.

Do you still have time to turn in the patient work-up that is due first thing in the morning? Can you really function well and recall what you need tomorrow if you have not slept?

[Learn to balance medical school with personal priorities.]

Even if you are not certain you can succeed at your assignment, start with a possible plan and positive attitude. That means mobilize, move and begin.

My first week as an intern, I had to complete 60 charts for a resident who had left the hospital. That would never happen now because they must be completed in 24 hours or less.

When hospitals stopped paying doctors if their charts weren't finished on time, behavior changed quickly. When I went to school, I remember many issuing a warning not to put it off. Procrastination was thought to be laziness and there were few resources to help manage it.

Threats were more likely to follow that warning if you fell behind in your work responsibilities because hospitals – and consequently doctors – lost money. Now if students have a problem with procrastination, they can draw on school resources.

I always remind my students to think about "action before motivation." Most students will not look forward to a hard task and long commitment, but breaking it into small pieces and initiating the first step will make the following steps easier.

Kathleen Franco, M.D., is associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. She previously served both as director of residency training and director of medical student training in psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic. She is board-certified in psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine and attended Medical College of Ohio – Toledo.