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Why Toxic Productivity Needs to Take a Hike

Dear medical students, we have all experienced this feeling before—when regardless of how much time you have spent studying, you cannot study anymore. In other words—you’ve hit study a wall. When all motivation leaves your body and you do not feel you can muster up the discipline, what do you do then? Should you feel bad about it? The short answer is absolutely not.

When the world is in a state of disarray, still in the midst of a global pandemic over a year on since its emergence, continuing your studies and personal development as normal becomes difficult because, of course, new priorities emerge. It is inevitable that you will hit a wall. I think of study block very much like writer’s block—some days you can sit all day in front of a blank page and write nothing productive for weeks. In the same way, you can wake up at a relatively decent time, set yourself up for a day of online learning and when it gets to 17:00 not only feel you haven’t done enough, but feel exhausted by it too. It is not a character flaw, although you might have convinced yourself of this. It is the product of a perpetually high-stress environment and internalised expectation to perform at your best.

In medical school, there is both a spoken and unspoken expectation for students to be exceptional, hard-working and regimental with their studies. There is no doubt that everyone on your course deserves to be in medical school, as do you. It is not uncommon for medical students to feel imposter syndrome and I am sure you’ve heard a lot about it. Medical students are used to working hard in order to prove and improve themselves; they are held to high expectations and standards by their lecturers, mentors and wider society. During the pandemic, we have seen medical students step up time and time again; graduating early in order to begin working on the wards as the new junior doctors, taking on extra placement hours in order to relieve the toll of the pressures caused by COVID-19 and being incredibly flexible with their learning. Some of us have spent over a year learning remotely and never actually meeting our peers or professors face-to-face. Since our education has moved mostly in our own homes, toxic productivity has become an even greater topic of contested discussion. A lot has happened in a very short timeframe and pressures put on us continue to exist.

There is no doubt that even the most on it person in your year has not hit a wall at some point and taken the day (or three) off from all things medicine-related. If you continue to enjoy the things that bring your joy outside of medicine, chances are it will make you an overall more well-rounded person and, by extension, a better doctor in the future.

I am one of the oldest people in my year, and as someone who has had a previous career in healthcare, people frequently look to me for answers, support and guidance. Despite this, I make it a point to not work 24/7. In the era of online learning, study-life balance is not easy to establish, but I let myself spend entire Tuesday mornings only focusing on making bread, and I spend some evenings guilt-free dancing with my headphones in. Sometimes, I find it best to take a break from being the person who puts in 112% into each lesson. And that is okay.

I am not here to tell you need to try and adopt a 25-minute pomodoro study routine or meditation to get you out of this rut. I am also not here to tell you that you need to go out for a 20-minute run to rejuvenate your brain or reshuffle your daily routine to start at 5am to avoid distraction. However, I am here to tell you, as a person who themselves has hit the [study] wall regularly, especially during the pandemic, that you have the right to give yourself the permission not to be a productivity guru. You have permission to be compassionate towards yourself and for a couple of days- do the bare minimum that’s necessary. You do not need to exceed anyone’s, not even your own, expectations this week. All you have to do is get by until you feel you can get back on your feet. And this is also okay.

When you hit a wall, think of this scenario as though your computer is lagging and you keep persevering by hitting the refresh button. Sometimes hitting F5 over and over again just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes you have to commit to hitting the full update and shutdown and be okay with it. As examination and assignment deadlines loom, I am not here to encourage a total abandonment of preparation, but there is also no point sitting in autopilot. I trust you will do what you need to do, however, I am saying that it is okay to not be remarkable at the moment. It is absolutely justified to take a serious break – whatever that may look like to you. In the meanwhile, take it easy and, if there is no one next to you right now, give yourself the biggest hug you know you deserve.

By Elzbie Grineviciute


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