Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How To Relax While Studying For USMLE Step 1

Studying for USMLE Step 1 can be quite a stressful experience. Medical school up to that point has been all about structure. Your professors tell you what to read, how to read it, and when to regurgitate it. Although everyone procrastinates, they at least have some framework by which to judge how far they have procrastinated. Then, all of a sudden, Step 1 rolls around, and the structure disappears. You have several weeks of dedicated 'study time', but how to use it effectively? Deciding on a USMLE Step 1 study schedule in some ways is the most important part of your overall USMLE Step 1 study strategy, moreso than figuring out which subjects are important, or which qbank to use

However, what is often easy to overlook when making that schedule is to budget time for relaxing. I could quote random statistics here about the importance of relaxing, but I'll spare you - just know that your studying will be more effective the more relaxed you are. As with anything, you must be balanced in your approach, but I think all too often medical students err on the side of relaxing too little rather than too much. 

But Scrub, you say, I feel stressed when I try to relax because I know I should be studying! Well, it happens, but to combat that "relaxation guilt," I suggest doing something I like to call productive relaxation. The idea here is to find things that you find relaxing that are simultaneously also productive in another manner. Below, I'll go through some ideas for productive and non-productive relaxation. 

Productive Relaxation

This was probably my favorite way to relax while studying for Step 1. I built in an hour or so every evening to work out. Exercise is clearly productive by itself, and the benefits were quite plentiful. First, it got me away from the desk and up / active. I also used to meet up with friends, so it let me socialize. Studying for Step 1 is quite a sedentary and solitary activity at times, so this killed two birds with one stone. Furthermore, when I returned to my desk later that night, I often felt refreshed and revitalized. Although I like playing basketball, my first choice of exercise was often running on a treadmill, watching TV. It's easier to schedule and be more consistent about this kind of exercise. If you can, try to get a treadmill that faces a TV which you can control totally. If so, just pop in your favorite TV show or movie on DVD, start running, and lose yourself in what's happening on-screen. Heh, or for the more hardcore of you out there, I suppose you could get those Goljan podcasts and listen to those as you run, but if that's your idea of relaxing... shoot, you need more help than I can offer! Doing simple exercises in your room can also be helpful. I think I got an abs ball around the time of Step 1, and I imagine a yoga mat couldn't hurt either. With these, just pop an abs workout or yoga workout DVD into your laptop, and you can do a quick workout to burn off some stress in between qbanks.

I am not a cook by any means, but I do think Step 1 studying was the first I started to think about teaching myself to cook in a more serious way. Cooking is clearly productive, as you make yourself a snack or meal. The action helps you take your mind off of your studying, and you end up learning a valuable skill. Plus, hopefully you end up with something yummy at the end! If you want to try a few very, very simple recipes, might I recommend trying:
For the more adventurous, check out the bestselling cookbooks on Amazon.

Organize / Clean
While I am definitely not a Type-A neat freak, I do see the value of an organized and clean workspace, especially when you are studying for a major exam like USMLE Step 1. Using a study break to clean and organize is a good way to take your mind off of the books for a while, and end up with a clean work area. I know I went out and got a nice silver / metal desk rack to help organize the papers on my desk, which has served me well. Another item that some may find useful is a book stand, like this one which is designed for textbooks: Fellowes Book Lift Copyholder. While I typically do not use one, one of my friends who's an MD/PhD does, and he seems to really like it.

Non-Productive Relaxation

Listen To Music
While I was exercising, if nothing good was on TV and I was sick of Goljan, I would listen to music. I often listened to music during the lighter parts of my studying as well. It's pretty easy to just crank up the LINK iPod and take little breaks when songs you like come on. Everyone has their own taste in music of course, but I think one way to judge how much you like a song is its "overplay" rating. Basically, the rating is the number of times you have to hear a song before it is overplayed. A song which will never be overplayed for you is a "Hall of Fame" (HoF) song. Some of my HoFs are:
Heh, given the nature of the rating system, some of these may drop off the list down the road, but give 'em a listen, maybe you'll find something you like.

Hang Out With Friends
Heh, not too much to this one, but it's definitely relaxing =)

Take A Nap
Now, naps can be a dangerous thing, but a well-timed 10-20 minute power nap can do wonders for your energy level. I would actually recommend only using this one when absolutely necessary, and not really building naps into your routine, but I think it's good to know when to take a nap and not just force yourself to blindly continue studying at 8pm when it's too early to really sleep but you just feel that tired. Studying for USMLE Step 1 is a draining process at times, so just letting go and letting your mind wander for a few minutes can be quite beneficial to your overall studying effectiveness. When in doubt, nap it out?

Hope you found some of these ideas useful. Even if you did not, I hope you find something that helps you relax while you study, and I hope you really do take it to heart that it is OKAY to relax while you study for USMLE Step 1!


  1. These are great ideas. I agree whole heartedly with the exercise suggestion in particular.
    One general thing I might add is: resist the temptation to use any and every book your friends are using. In fact, STOP asking your friends what they are doing once you've decided on your books and routine. Just focus on your strategy.

  2. Yea, I think I mentioned this in my USMLE study strategy post, but I should have emphasized it more. More is not always better. Just find what books work for you and stick to them.

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