Juggling work, study and personal life can be daunting for registrars and International Medical Graduates (IMGs). If you’re also preparing for your Fellowship exams, then you have a challenging schedule ahead. Every hour can feel crucial, and an unexpected delay or interruption can reduce the time you have to study and prepare for your exams.

To cope with these commitments, you need to adopt a consistent and effective regime of time management. Time management strategies won’t just get you across the line, they may even get you to the top of the line. Learning how to use time and resources productively can improve your confidence and academic performance, while decreasing stress and exam anxiety.

Make a study schedule

What’s the first step? Use a diary or calendar to work out how many weeks and days you have until your Fellowship exams and how many topics or modules you want to complete. Then work out the hours you have available to study each topic and the time you’ll need to be ready for the exams.

Note your work hours and any time off during the day you can use to study. This is useful because research has shown that spacing learning events  over a longer period, rather than cramming them all in a short timeframe is more effective. So, any 20-minute coffee break you have is a golden opportunity to revise learning material or read a guideline for your Fellowship exams, and is likely to result in greater retention of the material. Plus, using work hours to enhance your study time is potential bonus time to juggle other aspects of your life.

Next, look at your personal commitments. Avoid anything that isn’t essential and postpone less important commitments until after your exams. On the other hand, if you’ve booked a tennis match or an hour swimming laps at the pool, consider keeping these in your schedule because they offer health and stress reduction benefits.

Once you’ve created a schedule using time management strategies, ensure you maintain consistency and don’t falter in your commitment and self-discipline.

What can you outsource?

Struggling to develop a consistent study schedule due to everything you’re trying to fit into the week? Prioritise your tasks into “important I do”, “delegate” or “can wait”. Microsoft Planner, part of the Microsoft Office 365 suite, is a great tool for categorising your tasks into these buckets. Now look again: is there anything that requires your time that you can outsource until after your exams?

Would a family member contribute their time to babysit or do a chore for you, or can you hire somebody to help with a household task? Remember that this will be a temporary expense. For example, this might include hiring a dog walker for your pet beagle, employing a cleaner for your apartment, a gardener to cut your grass or shopping online instead of visiting the supermarket.

Use time management strategies to create more time for study by outsourcing personal and household tasks. But be sure to employ people you know or a reliable company that you can trust.

How to say no

Being invited to events you don’t have time to attend can be a serious drain on your energy and time-wasting experience. Or being pulled into helping people who are too lazy to do their own research can really pull you down and affect your study time.

If you find it difficult to say no, here are some time management strategies to help.

The best way to say no is to express gratitude for being asked. Thank them for asking but provide a short firm response in the negative. Don’t leave room for further negotiation and if you feel uncomfortable explaining why, let them know you’ll get back to them later. This will give you an opportunity to prepare what you’re going to say.

Provide a reason for saying no. If it’s somebody you know well, provide some detail, but keep the details vague if you don’t know them personally.

If you’ve been asked to help and feel obliged to lend a hand, tell them you can help after your exams, or nominate another person who might be able to help in your place.

Do you know how you learn best?

We all have our preferred learning style and forcing yourself to sit through a learning experience that delivers little value to you will only hinder your exam preparation, reduce motivation, and waste your study time. From the (reading/writing, visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic, which is learning through doing, moving, touching, or feeling) there is usually one learning method that works best for you.

Knowing your best learning style can help you save time and process content more efficiently and effectively. Otherwise, it’s like trying to write with your non-dominant hand – you can do it but its time-consuming, frustrating, and ineffective. For example, if you learn best through the auditory method, you could find a recording of a case study, podcast, or book chapter to listen to rather than reading it. Or, to reinforce your learning you might find an opportunity to actively participate in a study group, to discuss and debate relevant guidelines or  textbooks.

Finding opportunities to use your preferred learning style for prescribed content will optimise your learning and save you time. These time management strategies will help you take control of your learning.

Maintain your wellbeing

Your health is easy to overlook when you’re managing multiple responsibilities on a daily basis. But if you’re doing time management successfully, then incorporating physical activities and a healthy diet into your schedule won’t be as difficult.

On the other hand, if your time management isn’t optimal, it’s more likely your wellbeing is suffering through bad eating habits and lack of physical exercise or sleep. Following your schedule consistently will ensure you have the time and energy to care for your physical and mental wellbeing.

Taking care of your health and making it a part of your daily routine is an important but often neglected aspect of exam preparation for learning and memory consolidation.

Know when you’re struggling

Don’t push yourself to study if you’re fighting to stay awake or can’t focus on your work. Get a good night’s sleep instead. If you’re still having difficulty adhering to your schedule the following day, take a break.

Just as batteries can only hold so much charge, you’ll only be able maintain peak performance for so long. That’s why the phrase ‘recharging my batteries’ has come to mean taking a pause to restore energy and focus.

So, think of the strategic downtime you take as an investment in your exam preparation. A few hours off might be just what you need to tackle the next study subject in the most effective way possible. Also, use that time off to consider if your time schedule is realistic and do-able. Trying to maintain an unrealistic schedule will just reduce your motivation and commitment to exam preparation. Ask yourself questions like: Is this routine realistic? Am I avoiding study with time-wasters (TV, Google, YouTube, Social Media like SnapChat or Facebook)? Am I asking too much of myself or am I procrastinating?

These time management strategies will help you manage your work load and personal life while studying for your Fellowship exams. Once you create your schedule and start using it every day, it will become a habit and a tool you rely on to stay on track and ahead of your daily commitments.

Need some additional help with time management? One-on-one coaching with a Fellowship Exam Performance Coach will assist you to examine your lifestyle, what is reasonable and what is not, and give you strategies for better work/life/study balance.