If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in being an extraordinary individual, and I feel like helping you with that goal. I have by no means achieved all of my goals, but I have achieved all of the major goals I set for myself at this age. I matched my dream specialty (dermatology) at my dream program. I have the most wonderful life partner a girl could ask for and a tribe of amazing, inspiring friends who make me laugh and push me to achieve great things everyday. Consider me your middle management adviser. Related: The 5 people you should have in your inner circle for success.
How to be successful:
Define your priorities
[ 1 ] Define your priorities
Our generation is quickly becoming the overwhelmed, unfocused generation. There are just so many options! Although feeling that we have options contributes to our quality of life, it can also contribute to perpetual discontent. Related: TedTalk Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choices.
For me, medicine has always been my focus. In undergrad, it was all about getting into medical school and in medical school it was all about matching dermatology. When I started medical school I was in my early twenties and a lot of my friends were making “25 before 25” lists – 25 things they wanted to accomplish/experience before the age of 25. I tried to make one, but I could only come up with two things 1. Match dermatology 2. Fall in love, again.* Sure, I could have filled the list with 23 other smaller goals, but who the hell cares? Those 23 things would not have mattered if I didn’t achieve those two major goals,** so I wasn’t going to waste my time and focus checking them off some stupid list.
*Done and done.
**We’ll talk about failure at a future date.
So, do the following things for yourself -
- Take at least 15 minutes to think about your ideal life 5 years from now. What does it look like? In what city are you living? With who? Apartment, townhouse, condo, house, nomad? Are you in love? With who? Kids? What does your average day look like? What are you driving?
- Okay, now focus in on the big picture things. What are the three goals you want to build towards today? What are the things in that picture you would be devastated to not have in 5 years? What things could you wait 10 years for?
- Write down specific steps to reach each of those three goals.
- optional: share your list with me - firstname.lastname@example.org! Things like this give me motivation to blog after a long days work.
[ 2 ] Be obsessed
There are two opposing philosophies on success –
- "You can have it all”
- “You can’t have it all
I have faith in you that you can be excellent at so many things!* - but you can’t be excellent at all of those things, at least not before retirement.
*I went through a period in undergrad where I REALLY wanted to be a University of Alabama football player. No one had faith in me, not even my very supportive parents. Despite my strong desire, I eventually had to accept the fact that I did not meet the qualifications for the job. I then focused my energy on careers that I could be good at and that I would be happy doing. Some of you will have to come to this conclusion with medicine also. Just because you want something does not mean you are qualified.
There are only so many hours in the day, and your fragile, mortal mind is sharp only half of that time. So, you can choose to concentrate your time and talents into a handful of arenas or you can choose to spread them out across multiple arenas. Both of these are okay, but realize they will come with different results. So, if you want to achieve a big goal – be obsessed with that goal. Work harder than everyone else. Spend more hours reading. More hours researching. More hours doing. In general, the more of a novice you are, the more hyper-focused you should be because there is so much to learn. As your learning curve flattens, you can more easily take on a new goal or hobby.
I started this blog when I was at the peak of my learning curve – the start of transition year, which is basically a paid fourth year of medical school. Now, as dermatology residency comes to a start, I am acutely aware that I could be using this time – as I write this post - to study dermatology. For me, that means less social time, less hours watching real housewives of New York, less hours doing nothing, and less hours blogging. Dermatology is #1, Alex is #2, and Love and the Sky is #3. That means Love and the Sky will not grow at the same rate as full time bloggers who dream of quitting their job. It’s been hard for me to swallow this because I’m very competitive, but I love my job as a dermatology resident. I don't want to quit my job. I want to do it all.
That gets me to balance...
[ 3 ] Understand balance
My view of balance is different from the stereotype of a super zenful woman who spends equal amounts of time with her job, babies, husband, and yoga mat - doing it all with ease.
In my humble, unmarried, childless opinion – you will be so unhappy if that’s your goal. It’s just not possible. Well, maybe if you abuse Adderall and caffeine, but I don’t recommend that. Dr. Mary Jo Lechowicz - who is as close to that caricature of balance as one human being can get – changed my life with her view of balance. So, I’m going to be a team player and change your life, too (share this article with a friend as a thank you! #sharingiscaring).
*Dr. Lechowicz is a highly sought after and highly specialized oncologist. She takes her job as a mother and wife equally seriously. To put context to how amazing she is, once a few of my classmates mentioned her name in discussion on an elevator and a lady on the elevator interrupted us and said "I don't know how you know her, but she is the most wonderful person on Earth. She saved my husband's life. He would not be here without her." She also has a country song written about her. Yet, whenever her kids see her, they immediately take off running and jump into her arms.
Balance is like a see-saw with life and work on opposing ends.
Some days/weeks/months work is on top. Some days/weeks/months life is on top. Very rarely, they are equal. As long as the see-saw is going up and down, it's fun!
So, when step 1 is on the horizon, it's okay to neglect your friends. I literally signed out of my life for step 1. I told my family not to call me. I peaced out on my friends. I signed off all of my research projects. I was hyper-hyper focused. When your best friend has a soul-crushing break-up, forget about your study plan and show up at her house with dark chocolate, merlot, and Chinese food (Dr. Love's break-up prescription). And when she insists on crying to Katy Perry’s documentary, you better pretend like you have nothing better to do with your life. I hate to go on a tangent, but friends show up when they’re needed.
More on building your “squad” later (I think we’re calling them “tribes” now.. check out the Emory med career profiles to read about my freakishly amazing tribe. Okay no, I can't with tribe or squad. I'm an adult.)
For me - my weekdays are for work, work, work, work, work. I wake up. I snapchat. I study. I go to work. I come home. I blog. I go to the gym. I FaceTime with Alex. I laugh myself to tears. I go to bed. I try really hard not to schedule social events during the week because it throws off my entire schedule and it throws off my focus. Rather, I try to squeeze in all of my social things on the weekends.* Brunch with Tabby, drinks with Alex's friends, bowling with Justin. I'm there and there and here and there. Sign me up! (okay confession, I am a champion flaker, but that's neither here nor there right now.)
update: I wrote this at the end of intern year. Now, I study all weekend because I can't afford fun, and I need to learn all the dermatology. I do try to get out at least once a weekend though.
So, for me, balance is not lazy and it sure as hell ain't easy.
[ 3 ] Learn to juggle
How do I merge the ideas of obsession and balance?
Think about how you would learn to juggle.
First, you would spend time researching juggling, watching people juggle, buying juggling sacks, etc.
Then you would start with one sack – hyperfocus.
Then, once you’ve pretty much mastered tossing one sack in the air and catching it, you’ll throw in a second – still pretty hyperfocused.
As you develop ease with each numerical set, you continue to add one sack at a time.
Even though you’re now juggling 5 sacks, you still maintain a degree of focus on each sack (although for shorter periods of time per cycle)
Now imagine those balls are clinicals, research, family, friends, fitness, blogging (my life right now).
The key to resolving the conflict between obsession and balance is to know what your priorities are. How many balls can you juggle today? What are those balls?
Starting dermatology residency is like transitioning from juggling soft sacks to hard pins. I have to start all over again with one pin. The learning curve will be quicker and I’ll be able to add pins quicker than I could sacks in medical school because I have the muscle memory, but I still have to start with just dermatology. It’s a luxury to reset, and I’m taking full advantage of it.
Keep in mind, you can’t juggle indefinitely. Either you’re going to choose to put the balls down and take a rest occasionally or your muscles will fatigue and you’ll drop them.* Have you ever noticed that in the gym that it’s much easier to hit a goal if you know the goal ahead of time? If you think you’ve given it all you got, but then someone says 20 more seconds, you can probably give 20 more seconds. If you didn’t get that 20 second warning, you would have probably stopped 20 seconds sooner. Same with juggling. It helps to have a timeline.
*More on burnout at a later date.
[ 4 ] Be efficient
You only have so many productive hours in the day. If you want to do more, you need to get more done in less time. As you juggle more and more sacks/pins/babies, there’s less wiggle room for sloppiness.
Aside from patient care, my favorite times in medical school were the days when I would go to the library for 12+ hours a day. To have time to really sit with the material and absorb it in my own time, that was just wonderful. That doesn’t exist during third year. During third year, I was juggling book studying, clinicals, research, friends, and finding Mr. Right. Studying became all about questions and shelf exams, less about knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Because efficiency is important, it's important to know which tasks to multi-task and which to give your complete focus. I know some people who like to do mindless tasks while watching tv, but for me that just ends up being a complete waste of time.
Efficiency is a big topic that I’ll elaborate more on later.
[ 5 ] Be organized
You only have so many productive hours in the day, but do you know how many hours that is? If you’re not organized, you won’t take advantage of your time optimally.
To do lists are essential for busier times because they allow me to batch tasks together. For example, on Friday nights I like to exfoliate, moisturize, mask, do my nails, and catch up on youtube/television. Another example - I don’t have a printer at home, so it’s important that I plan to print/fax needed items while I’m at work.
My organization system:
Because i'm balancing work, dermatology study session, long distance love, and a blog editorial schedule, It’s essential for me to have a monthly view of work, travel, scheduled events, deadlines, and due dates. At the beginning of the week, I like to write down everything that I need to get done, basically a word dump. This gives me a lot of relief when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
From there, I like to write down my to do list for that day, the next day, and the next day. The most important thing with making a daily to-do list is to be realistic about how much you can actually get done. This is easiest if you assign general time frames for each task. Usually when I just do lists without timing it together, I overestimate how much I can get done. Also, the time frames help me know if I’m on schedule for the day or not.
I’ve tried a ton of different planner methods, but what works best for me right now is just a blank sheet of paper folded along the long edge. It’s the method I used in medical school and it really works because I’m on the go a lot. I can’t keep a notebook on me, but as a physician, I always have room for a piece of note paper and pen. I write my to do lists on colored paper because it keeps me from accidentally shredding them away with patient notes and because the bright color makes me a little happy.
Knowing what I have to get done for the next 3 days is the key part to keeping me on tract. It’s a lot harder to procrastinate when you understand how busy your schedule is for the next two days. Ideally, I would rewrite the list each day, but I usually end up just adding to it each day.
That's my system, but everyone has a system that works for the. Figure out yours!
There you have it – my tips on how to be successful.
Define your priorities
I love your comments, criticism, and questions below (or in my inbox).