Hey folks! This week I’d like to talk about the process of making plans. Recently this has been on my mind since it’s what I’ve been struggling with. I personally believe that making a detailed, realistic plan is the key to a healthy study routine. Once you know exactly what you need to do each day you can stop worrying about whether or not you’ll be ready for the exam, since all you need to focus on is completing your daily tasks. It also really helps with procrastination. When each day you have a vague idea of what you need to do, you’re putting a lot of decision burden on your future self. This usually ends up with taking the path of least resistance, which almost always isn’t what’s best for you in the long term (well it can be but that’s a topic for another newsletter).
The problem is that often this is much easier said than done. It can be quite overwhelming to take a good hard look at everything you need to do from now until the exam. It can make you feel helpless. Kind of like standing at the bottom of Mount Everest, barely seeing the summit and knowing that you’ll need to somehow climb it in the next couple of days. This is why it’s much easier to have a vague plan. If you don’t really know how much work you need to do each day, you can just go at your own pace, oblivious to how behind you are until right before the exam when you realize that you’ve been going too slow. At that point, you commence the panic and all-nighters.
This is one way to deal with feeling overwhelmed but it’s not the best way. It’s much more productive to face that monster early on in your journey when it’s scary but not as big as it’s going to get. At least you have enough time to come up with a plan of attack. A lot of people at this point will create a plan that is far too unrealistic to follow. Their thought process is “if I don’t have much time I need to study much harder so that I’ll be ready”. The problem is that if you’re already studying close to your maximum capacity, pushing it further won’t be sustainable. You might be able to for a couple of days then you’ll burn out and resort back to the previous plan, doing whatever until a couple of days before the exam.
A key underlying theme that I’ve seen in many issues related to studying is that of being realistic compared to being idealistic. Everybody plans to achieve a full score and when they realize that’s not going to happen they give up and end up barely passing. If more people were realistic about their situation, accepted it, and worked on achieving the highest score with the tools and time they have left, they’d be much better off in the long run. But how do we do that?
First off it’s important to have a good understanding of the material you need to cover. How many topics and subjects are there? How heavy is each topic? Which materials do you have at your disposal (notes, textbooks, etc)? A quote I like that combines both of these ideas is from Sun Tzu in The Art of War, “Know thy enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.” What this means is, we need to be realistic with ourselves about our strengths, weaknesses and accept our current abilities. Then we need to understand the enemy AKA the exam material. Once we’ve done both we are able to create a plan of attack which is likely to succeed.
Exactly how you go about making a plan depends on the individual, but this doesn’t mean that making a them isn’t for everyone. Having a plan makes sure that you know where you’re going. It gives you a direction and lets you know if you’re falling off track. Flying blind and hoping to land where you need to isn’t a good strategy. The problem is that people try making plans, they fall into some common traps and then think that it just isn’t for them. It’s possible that the plan wasn’t good or that the type of plan didn’t suit the person. More specifically, the degree of specificity within it. Some people like to know what they’re going to do every minute of every day and some people just need some general guidelines. This is where people differ. I can’t give an example of which plans will work for each type of person so I’ll give you an example of what works for me.
To start off with I list each topic of each subject and assess how long each one will take to complete. Sometimes there are sections that take as much time as 2 smaller ones. I then have a test run where I go through the material in order to identify a speed that I can reasonably expect myself to go at. Then I try to spread out the topics into the days I have until the exam (preferably ending a week or two beforehand to give time to consolidate the information). If the number of days I have left is lower than I need to finish all the topics, then I won’t increase the amount I expect myself to study past a certain amount that I know I can handle. If I were to do that it would just mean that I wouldn’t follow the plan and it’d be useless.
I still split the topics into each day but I lower my expectations. Instead of covering every single fact in each topic, I’ll make sure that I cover the most important 20% (see my previous newsletter) of information in each of them and then add detail as the day progresses. This way if I didn’t have enough time I still covered the highest yield points (those most likely to show up on the exam). Then the key part is that the next day I move on. I don’t hang around a topic until it’s completely done. This will just mean that I’ll have less time for those later on. This is my method but some people might be better suited to shifting topics to other days in order to fit them all in. I tried that and it didn’t work for me.
The reason this works so well is that it keeps me focused on a task. It keeps the 80/20 principle at the top of my mind and means that I don’t need to worry about not being ready for the exam. However, because a plan that works for me won’t work for someone else, I highly recommend that you practice the process of iteration. Make a plan, learn from it if it didn’t work, learn from it if it did, and keep improving. If you didn’t follow your plan then that’s valuable information that you’d be throwing away if you didn’t gain new insights that you can implement in the future.
Finally, I’d like to add a point about spreading out tasks within a day. I’ve talked about gathering data on your energy levels on stream and maybe I’ll make a whole newsletter about it in the future. But basically, you should keep track of your energy throughout the day and plan accordingly. Do the high-intensity work when you have the most energy and the monotonous, mind-numbing work when you have the least. That way you’ll be most likely to complete your daily tasks. There are more specifics that I’d like to get into, my template, and what I add in my plans but this newsletter is already getting pretty long so I’ll leave it at that.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this newsletter and have found my advice useful, I highly suggest signing up for my 1 on 1 coaching sessions. You’ll be able to discuss your situation with me and receive my guidance on how you can proceed to optimize your studying. The earlier you work on how you study the higher the returns will be. I wish I would’ve had something like this in high school or in my first years of med school. Thanks for reading and good luck with your studies!