Chunking down

Photo courtesy of Kari Shea/Unsplash

At the end of my first week in medical school, I was still riding an emotional high–partly the grateful satisfaction that I had actually reached an academic goal few achieve, and partly the result of meeting a large cohort of like-minded people, all in a nurturing academic setting. In short, I made it! After years of dreaming about it, I can’t believe I am really here!

In most ways, that first week was a bit of a blur, both with multiple introductions to classmates and professors, and with being provided the routines and class outlines we would soon be regimented to. As we entered each new classroom,  there was either a new textbook or a stack of assigned readings being recommended to us; at the end of the day, all of these were carefully stacked onto a coffee table in my humble apartment not far from campus.

And then, on that first Friday afternoon, my perspective changed dramatically.  Are a pleasant social class soccer game on a sunny afternoon, we all returned to our humble homes, to shower, and find something to eat.   As I sat relaxed on my couch, contemplating cracking my first book, glancing at what was now a stack of textbooks more than a foot high, a grim realization hit me:  I cannot possibly read all of this by Christmas!  There were thousands and thousands of pages in front of me, none of which was exactly light reading, and much of it I would be trying to read more than once for exam preparation purposes.  Oh my God!  Within minutes, anxiety was coursing through me like a low voltage current.  I couldn’t concentrate–how would I be able to read?

Surely some of my other classmates are coming to terms with this reality.  Surely we all can’t fail our first term.  Surely the last-year’s class had to deal with this as well, and they all managed to get through it.  Could it just be me that drops out by Christmas, as a result of not being up to this monumental task of reading?

I calmed down slightly, but I needed a different perspective, a relevant perspective.  I called an old friend who had started medical school a couple of years before I did.

“Hey Bruce, how are you doing? Fourth year going well for you?  Great. So, listen–I have spent this week stacking up my textbooks on top of each other on my coffee table, and now they are more than a foot high.  How does anyone read all this in just four months? I am not that fast a reader!”

“What do you have to get done for Monday?”

“I have a chapter in my anatomy text to read, as well as one in my histology text. I have a physiology assignment as well.”

“Do you think you can get that done by Monday?

“Yes… I should be able to.”

“Great.  That is how you get through medical school–one day at a time. Never. Ever. Look at the Big Picture. Ever.  It will scare the shit out of you.  Take that pile of books apart, and spread them all over the room.  Don’t ever put them together again like that.  Ever.  The secret is to always chunk down your work into small bits.  Chunking down is how you get through your darkest days.  There is exam hell week in early December, where you have  two 3-hour exams a day for four days.  Just focus on what you get need to get done for one day, even one hour if you have to.  Get it?”

Chunking down was the best advice I ever received to get through my toughest times in school.


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