Tips for Managing Your Personal Life While in Residency

1. Prioritize your loved ones. Those who support us have to sacrifice a lot on our behalf. We are absent from our parents’ houses at many holidays, and, when we are there, we are likely napping. Our girlfriends and boyfriends tolerate us showing up late at restaurants or missing friends’ weddings. Therefore, we owe it to them to show them our appreciation. On days off, make a date night. Call your mother.

Don’t forget birthdays or anniversaries. Above all, remember we chose this life; your family and friends didn’t. They may want to hear an interesting anecdote or 2, but they don’t want to hear how miserable you are. Put on a good face—and don’t forget to ask about their lives, too!

2. Get organized. Use an online calendar, such as Google Calendar, to organize your work and personal responsibilities. Automate all your bill payments. Use an online money management system such as Mint.com to track your budgets and account balances. Set up reminders for conference presentations, American Board of Surgery In-training Exams (ABSITEs), and birthdays.

3. Manage (or outsource) your household chores. It’s hard to stomach spending your 1 day off a week scrubbing a toilet. If your budget can handle it, look into getting a bimonthly cleaning service. Or cut your jobs into smaller sections: do 1 load of laundry during the week. Drop your car off and have them change the oil and get it smog tested. Think of your time in terms of how much per hour you are worth: if outsourcing an activity would cost you less than $20 an hour, perhaps your time is worth more than that.

4. Stay active. Physical activity is not only important for health but also a great way to blow off frustration and stress. It’s also a much healthier coping mechanism than going to the bar after work every night. Try hitting the gym first. Bike to work if you can. Take the stairs on rounds.

5. Don’t procrastinate. As a resident, you will have more responsibilities than just patient care; you will have to read for conferences, prepare for cases, present at morbidity and mortality, and perhaps present even at Grand Rounds or other department-wide conferences, not to mention excelling on the ABSITE. Therefore, give yourself a reading plan and stick to it; get a textbook you like (popular ones include Greenfield, Cameron, and Sabiston) and make yourself read a chapter a month. Your ABSITE performances and your poise on the podium go far in establishing your reputation with the department attendings.

6. Know when to ask for help. The pressures on a resident can feel overwhelming, and a poor patient outcome or being yelled at by an attending having a bad day can trigger an emotional crisis when you are exhausted and angry. Some residents cope by “kicking the can down the road,” that is, abusing or blaming friends, family, or colleagues. Most “problem residents” are not mean or insensitive; they are likely depressed and overwhelmed. Many may be scared at appearing weak by showing emotion after the death of a patient to whom they were particularly attached or by a family crisis. Residency doesn’t slow down for grief, which can be an extremely isolating, and dangerous, situation. Alcohol, and even drug, use and abuse are often prevalent in these situations and should trigger an immediate, confidential discussion with an employee assistance program or program director. For less serious issues, residents should have a cadre of people they feel comfortable turning to for professional issues, such as one of their chief residents, junior attendings, or their academic mentors. Having a more senior person in your corner can go very far, both for career development and during the periodic academic review process.

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