The following is part of a series of guest posts.
Studying can be a real pain. That’s why I used to avoid it at all possible moments until the night before the big test. Then, I would cram to pound every last morsel of information into my gray matter. But since deciding to go to medical school, I’ve learned that this might not be the best way to approach studying. Cramming is just not worth it. Reading the book, Flow, by Csikszentmihalyi (cool name, Cheek-Sent-Me-Highly) I’ve learned that studying can be a much more pleasurable experience if I focused my attention and practiced better study habits.
What is Flow?
Flow is a state of consciousness where people have an optimal experience through action and control of attention. In a simple word, Happiness. You’ve probably felt this before. You’re so into what you’re doing that you lose track of time, and you’re fully engaged in the activities of the present moment. There is a goal you’re almost reaching and your performance is optimal. You’re stretching yourself and your skills and your attention is fully submersed into your performance. Finally, you hit the game winning shot, or beat that final level, or lost yourself on the dance floor, or (fill in your own flow experience here.)
Although there isn’t necessarily a perfect method to controlling the flow mindset, there are certain things that can be done to maximize the potential for a flow experience. This involves activities that focus attention: autotelic activities. These activities can really be anything with purpose. Think of hobbies or things you pursue simply for pleasure. They are different for different people. For Michael Jordan, I’d think basketball was autotelic for him, coding was autotelic for Bill Gates, and studying medicine could be autotelic for you.
The idea that enjoyment and flow would come when the mind was in a state of action changed my perspective. Initially, I preferred those days of rest when I would sleep in and not bother to even put clothes on. I’d grab a bowl of cereal and zone out in front of the TV watching a marathon of “Orange is the New Black.” Think of the Bruno Mars’ song “Lazy.” Although doing this occasionally isn’t bad, flow comes from an opposite state where one is controlling their attention and there is a sense of challenge.
Realize it’s Placing Attention on the Intrinsic
How difficult and competitive medical school can be at times is scary. Because of the pressure and challenges, many people look to getting into med school as some savior or extrinsic reward worth inching toward. One would say, “Once I get into medical school, it’ll all be worth it.” Studying becomes difficult as the pressure to perform increases. But, medical school won’t necessarily make you happier. In fact, if you hate studying, medical school will probably make you more frustrated. This cycle can oftentimes lead to burnout because holding out and studying through the pain can only last for so long without a clear reward. Flow is not about erasing external rewards, but instead replacing extrinsic motivations with intrinsic ones. If you could find a way to make studying more pleasurable, you can learn more, and get into medical school.
If you haven’t heard about the Marshmallow Experiment then let me give you the gist of it. Scientists would give a kid something they really enjoyed, a marshmallow or cookie for example, and told them they could have the marshmallow, but if they waited for the scientist to return (~15 mins later), and didn’t eat the treat, they could have another treat. Of course for children, the waiting was something to be endured. Check out the kids here.
The interesting thing came from analyzing the kids that successfully held out for the second marshmallow. Many kids waited by focusing their attention and delaying gratification. This process is was obviously difficult and limited in each child, but those that found ways to refocus their attention to something other than waiting met success. That’s the idea behind finding ways to make studying a personal autotelic activity. Medical school is your marshmallow, and the way to get there is to flow through studying.
How do you make studying fun?
For each person it’s different, but here are a few things that I’ve done to make learning more enjoyable.
Find the Bright Spots
One of the first things I did was stop cramming altogether. Learning immediately became a much more pleasurable process because I was able to be curious and find things about my subjects that were interesting. I had time to delve into the history of organic chemistry; I learned that scientists disproved the idea of a “vital force” which many thought supported the existence of a supreme creator. They were able to make “living” matter out of “non-living” matter, and this changed the way people viewed God and the world around them. When studying physiology, I learned that pain impulses of the brain are sometimes visually triggered which led to the use of mirrors to treat phantom limb pain of amputees. Check it here. Even though you’re being tested on very technical monotonous subjects, there is a rich history and application to the theory if you just take a second to walk down the rabbit hole. These curiosities are bright spots that lead the way to you taking a deeper interest in your studies.
Work with people you like.
Make sure you find people you like being around. If you don’t at first, keep looking. Studying is not the most social activity in the world. Still, it was nice to make appointments with classmates and friends to meet at the library so that I wasn’t alone. Depending on the class, we would also meet to work in groups and share information and notes. This made learning much more enjoyable because of how social the study time was. Depending on the group, things can be less productive, but even occasional inefficient work is good to keep you motivated and can prevent you from quitting altogether.
If you don’t work well in groups, having people to keep you accountable is often helpful. Start a mastermind group and declare measurable goals for the week. For example, tell someone you want to complete your BioChem notes and write a rough draft for OChem lab. Then, when you meet up with your group again, communicate how successful or unsuccessful you were. Accountability is huge!
Share your knowledge
Teaching other people what I’ve learned is really rewarding because it’s a sign that I’m learning and it feels good to help other people grasp concepts they are struggling with. If I get opportunities to share what I’ve learned before a test, this is a great way to see what I don’t understand and it enforces novel concepts in my learning.
For things I’ve had particular trouble with, I’ve written songs to help memorize vocabulary and drew pictures to understand structure. Here is a song on the electron transport chain that you might like. Here is one to help remember the number of molecules in glycolysis. I bought molecular models kits in organic chemistry just because I loved Legos, but it ended up being helpful in understanding the ‘chair’ and ‘boat’ configurations of cyclohexane. Subjects don’t have to be boring if you can find a way to dress up the theory with different media and toys.
Measure your performance
This is where I feel the MCAT and GAMSAT (Australia’s version of the MCAT) shine. In order to reach a state of flow, it helps to have tangible metrics to show growth and learning. As much as you would hate taking the test, it’s really a great way to test and retest to show improvement. I’ve had a lot of trouble with the verbal section in the MCAT, but was able to improve my score a couple of points which made all the hard work worth it. Now, I also feel much more confident about my ability to think differently and learn subjects I initially don’t grasp all because I’ve proven myself with growth in my MCAT scores.
Measuring also gives me a reason to celebrate. Putting in the time in and working hard will often show when taking the test. Seeing that the effort is paying off might give you a reason to take much needed breaks. If you’re progressing toward your goals, acknowledge that improvement and grab an ice cream with a friend or spend extra time making a YouTube video teaching something that you think is AWESOME!
Set Realistic goals
Flow can be achieved when there is a correct balance of challenge and skill. Too much challenge leads to frustration, and too much skill leads to boredom. This is also why I love standardized tests. You can take a diagnostic test and aim according to your initial results. Yes, everyone wants a 45 on the MCAT, but what are you getting now and what do you need to work on to get closer to that perfect score? If you put in the work, you will see growth, just make sure that your expectations match your effort and capabilities.
These are just some ideas that have worked for me. It’s important for you find a way to find your love for learning and increase your mental flow.
How would you make studying fun or interesting to you?
About the author: “The Butcher” is applying to medical school in Australia. After graduating with a Math and Physics degree from UC Berkeley, he became a high school math teacher in California, but is now pursuing medicine. He is starting a new website called MedicalMeat where he hopes to build a healthy premedical community to inspire and empower applicants to get into medical school. He is the greatest man to ever live, and he is the most humble person in the world. Follow him now at MedicalMeat.com