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All systems go

In some ways, the little things are the only things

It was good to read the responses that came through in response to my question about how you’re planning to stay on track this year. Some great tips from Instagram:

  • thesavvymedic: ‘Forgiving schedules, leaving time for me, keeping my goals in sight and mind’
  • cat.c.medic: ‘Start early – little by little. Form study groups for clinical skills and have a rough timetable. Organise rest breaks. Take part in clinical practice with @study_hub_events’
  • mbchmb_life: ‘Taking it at a steady pace. It’s going to be a marathon, we started the year earlier and finish later. Self care days to avoid burnout and stay motivated → productivity → staying on track’

Thank you for these; I am going to be taking them on as I head into my second year of medical school. I am looking forward to getting back into the routine of the course, and I have been reflecting on how I am going to change and improve my study skills this year. I have decided I would like to work smarter (as the saying goes), and the fact that so many of avenues for getting together with friends and recharging are now not going to be available to me (and this is maybe slightly heretical in our age of productivity worship to say) but I don’t want to necessarily work harder. Again, this week I feel the need to give a caveat – I am not against hard work! If you are reading this, I think you too are no stranger to hard work, and indeed probably get a lot of fulfilment from working hard to attain the goals you have set for yourself. But as Oliver Burkeman writes, the event of achieving a goal can be somewhat anti-climactic or deflating – as human beings, we need things to strive for; these things we conceptualise as ‘goals’. Our goals become our motivation for action, movement and effort that we know might entail discomfort in the short or medium term but will reap rewards in the long-term. When that goal is gone, we can feel adrift – like we have lost direction on our journey. Burkeman explains – as does psychologist Wendy Wood in this great episode of the Hidden Brain podcast – that instead of setting goals, implementing systems and forming habits is where we should put our focus.

The ‘systems not goals’ idea has abounded for a long time, but perhaps was most pithily put in sociologist, Daniel F. Chambliss’s classic paper ‘The Mundanity of Excellence’. I came across this paper via Ali Abdaal, and I too recommend it as a lively and invigorating read that attempts to demystify excellence using examples drawn from observing Olympic swimmers and extrapolating to other areas, including academia. Some choice quotes that really stuck with me:

  • ‘A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it’
  • ‘It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.’
  • ‘Excellence is mundane’
  • ‘[T]here is no secret: there is only the doing of the little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until each one becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life’

The latter seems particularly apt to the endeavour of studying medicine, and chimes with the great advice from the Study Hub community. Forming good habits, recalibrating and adjusting those habitual behaviours and doing them routinely is what makes the difference. Sometimes studying is enjoyable and fun, often it is a slog – there is no getting away from that. But making the whole process of study into an iterative system helps to limit some of the variables, and even has the potential to make excellence – or maybe I prefer competence – that much more achievable.

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