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A Day in the Life of a Postgraduate Trainee: Time, Your Most Valuable Resource

Written by: Sarah Wong
Published on: Oct 24, 2023

Have you ever wished there were more hours in the day? Days in the week? Weeks in the year? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but despite our wishing, there are still only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and 52 weeks in a year. This fixed amount of time makes it even more prudent to be judicious of where and how we spend it.

As a learner, the opportunity to gain knowledge and experience can be alluring, especially in an area you are passionate about. Sometimes ambition can take over and push you to seek more responsibilities and opportunities. The success of such pursuits only further reinforces this mentality and increases the risk of burnout. Being a good steward of my time is something I am constantly monitoring. Especially when I am placed in a situation where the opportunities are endless (for me, residency training), becoming overwhelmed and exhausted can be just around the corner.

When starting my PGY1 residency, I had many people tell me the transition into residency would be tough, so I prepared myself for the beginning. However, no one prepared me for the grind that is the middle of residency. When projects/deadlines were approaching, my brain was overflowing with the intake of clinical knowledge, and I felt like I had enough meetings to attend to fill a lifetime. There was a period during which my stress levels were so high that even the slightest deviation in plans or inconvenience would elicit an emotional response. My mind did not want to rest, but it needed rest and so did my body.

During my PGY2 orientation, I was presented with a checklist of all the residency tasks to be completed by the end of the year. Yes, I had gone through something very similar during my PGY1 orientation, but having experience does not always equate to comfortability. To say that seeing all the projects, research, topic discussions, and presentations I would need to complete was overwhelming would be an understatement. I knew I would have the next 12 months to get everything done, but that did not make seeing all the deadlines at once less daunting.

I am by no means an expert in time and project management, nor do I claim to be. However, through my successes and failures as a student and trainee and the mentors I have sought advice from, I have learned some quite valuable tips. Regardless of whether we are students, residents, or fellows or have been practicing for 20 years, we can always improve how we manage our time. Here are three practices I have incorporated that have been instrumental in both prioritizing my time and ensuring projects are completed successfully.

First, it is OK to say no. Yes, you read that right: N.O. Now say it with me, NO! When operating in a sea of endless opportunities, projects to work on, research to conduct, and committees to participate in, it is okay to be selective. Choose only the activities you are passionate about or that align with your professional and personal goals. I often need to remind myself of the latter because I am usually interested in so many things, but unfortunately, I do not have the time to partake in all of them. Now I know that you may not always have a say in what you take on and the activities that are assigned. However, it is important that even with assigned tasks, you still try to find ways to position the project to your benefit. For example, as a pharmacy resident, we have many objectives to complete throughout the year, so choosing the topic or focus area is beneficial.

Second, before committing to a project or task, I like to prepare a list of questions to ask so that I have the necessary information to decide whether to take it on or to make sure I am prepared to take it on. Here is a list of essential items I always ask before taking on a project, or at the beginning of doing a project: What is expected of me? What are the necessary deadlines? What has been done so far? Who all are/need to be involved? If I have any questions going forward, who should I reach out to and what is the preferred method of communication? You cannot always anticipate everything, but this list of questions gets me to a good starting point.

Third, I always have frequent check-ins with myself to monitor my current responsibilities and progress. I use a paper planner (I can feel some of you rolling your eyes right now). I like to write in periodic check-ins with myself. I use this time to assess all the projects I am working on, evaluate how my progress is going in relation to deadlines, and prioritize where I need to focus my immediate attention. This can look very different from person to person. You may find it beneficial to have reminders on your phone or to find a person with whom you can schedule a time to chat (accountability partner). The important part is to schedule this time for reflection and planning and to stick to it so that assignments and deadlines do not creep up on you.

Everyone’s limits are different, and that is OK! The important part is to know yourself and develop a good system for monitoring and checking in to prevent an inundation of tasks that can lead to mental or physical burnout. What I have discussed is not profound, and I am sure you have heard similar approaches. As a learner, I can appreciate the value of repetition to improve retention and implementation. Time is your most valuable resource. Continuing to strive toward optimal stewarding of time will be invaluable to your success and well-being.


About the author:

Sarah Wong is a current PGY2 cardiology resident at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she also completed her PGY1 training. She received her Pharm.D. degree in 2022 from the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. Her clinical interests include advanced heart failure, mechanical circulatory support, electrophysiology, and leadership. In her free time, Sarah enjoys traveling, playing golf and pickleball with her husband, trying new foods, and spending time with friends and family.

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