By Dominik Nowak, HBSc, MD

Dominik completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto (Class of 2013), and his medical degree at McMaster University (Class of 2016). He will be pursuing Family Medicine residency at the same school (Class of 2018). He was also the captain of the McMaster’s Men’s Varsity Tennis Team (2015-2016).

He will be sharing some tips on time management skills, and balancing academic and extracurricular activities.

I understand. You want to become a doc. You are tempted to hang up those ballet slippers and to close the piano drawer. In my case, I was tempted to put away the tennis racket. I needed stellar grades, those pristine reference letters, and that outstanding MCAT score. Each hour was valuable. The load does not get any lighter after getting into medical school; however, there are several reasons why you should continue pursuing high-level extracurricular activities throughout your undergrad and medical training.

First, I will offer an observation. Many of the best physicians have a passion outside of medicine. I once had a mentor tell me, “Dominik, to become a successful surgeon, you must stick to a strict schedule and never deviate from it. Spend your time either working/studying or sleeping.” I immediately booted him from my list of mentors. Throughout my medical training, I have seen a recurring theme. The most balanced doctors who care and who go beyond for their patients are those with rich and fulfilling passions outside of work. They love their lives inside and outside of the clinic and the operating theatre. Strive to become one of those doctors.

The second observation is tangentially related to my first. The medical lifestyle can be tough. It is exhilarating, uplifting, and empowering. However, it is also draining. While you progress through your training, you will have many wonderful days and you will also have some lousy days. Whether you flunked a test or merely could not answer your supervisor’s latest urological trivia, your self-esteem will inevitably take hits. It helps to have several spheres in which you can excel. You had a bad day in clinic…so what? It is still a good learning experience, and you still have many other talents that will help make you an excellent physician.

I am often asked how I manage senior medical student clinical duties with a varsity sport. I would say: one needs to prioritize, stays organized, and be committed in order to achieve a balance between various activities. It is also about working hard and making time for the things you love. You will usually wake up early, you will often get to bed late, and you will sometimes wonder how you manage with so little sleep. Playing tennis is part of who I am, and just as big of a role as being a medical student. There is no compromise to that.

Here are some strategies that have worked well for me to balance medical school and extracurricular activities:

  1. A calendar app or an agenda is your best personal assistant.
  2. Learn how to say “No.” This may be difficult to do, but unless you have a time-turner, you may regret taking on unnecessary commitments. It is better to do some things well than to stretch too thin and do many things poorly.
  3. Take good care of yourself and remember to eat well, sleep well, and exercise! Seriously, balancing various activities and working hard means you need to take extra care of yourself.
  4. Take rest days. Some days playing your sport will re-energize you. Playing eight days in a row, however, is a recipe for injury.

When I told my wise older brother of my acceptance into medical school, he said, “Dominik, never let medicine come in the way of your tennis.” His facetious comment has plenty of truth. Therefore, I hope to pass this on to you…let medicine flourish as a passion of yours, and stay true to the other passions in your life.

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