3 Lessons from 2021 | Routines, Rest, and More

I’m in an interesting season of life where most of my free time is spent writing my residency applications. (Wish my friends and I luck!) This blog is a much-needed break from that headspace. Thank you for everyone who reads these and thank you for any feedback!

It’s impossible to talk about 2021 without acknowledging the pandemic. Morale was low for the first half of this year. In Ontario we started this year in a lockdown and ultimately entered an additional lockdown during the spring.  While we’re still in uNcErTaIn times now and opinions on this topic vary, I want to personally acknowledge the magnitude that having the vaccines meant for this year especially with reducing severe illness. They are a monumental step in the normalcy we are slowly starting to rediscover. Okay – now no more COVID mentions from me.

2021 for me was the year of clerkship. For those that don’t know, clerkship is when medical students finally get to go into the hospital and do rotations in most of the specialties. We see real patients every day and start to learn more hands-on. Needless to say, after months of Zoom school, my classmates and I were excited for this change. Now going into 2022, we only have 4 more weeks of in-hospital time left and after that likely won’t be doing any clinical duties until July 1st when we start residency. Quite surreal.

I like that 2021 was a year dedicated to this experience. It was a year of firsts: first IV insertion, first 24-hour call shift, etc. Through any new experience, you are bound to learn some things about life and yourself. Here are three big takeaways I had:

Lesson #1: Routines might just keep you afloat through challenging periods of life.

Maybe it’s because of the digital spaces I find myself in, but I feel content on routines has become ultra-popular. And for good reason.

At 4:15 AM on a humid September morning during my Surgery rotation, I started my day the same way I did at 7:00 AM during my Family Medicine rotation in the spring. Everyone’s morning routine looks different. Mine always includes light music, getting my joints moving, and my absolute favourite part – coffee (with frothed milk and cinnamon) among other rituals. Routines work so well because over time they become automatic. I don’t have to think about putting on the Spotify “Jazz in the Background” or another curated playlist of my choosing when I wake up, I just do it out of habit.

Yet, the music concurrently cues me that my day has indeed begun at 4:15 AM or otherwise and helps me ease into it with a calm ambiance. The few minutes of movement help me to wake up my body and get rid of grogginess. My coffee is what gets me out of bed no matter how early; it’s what I most look forward to and I am not ashamed. It really is about “the little things” as they say.

Now let’s once again circle back to 4:15 AM. Between 4 and 5 AM is usually not a time people want to wake up. Myself included. And certainly not for weeks at a time. It gets tiring no matter much you may be enjoying your work. I do try to remind myself that there are Starbucks employees and even parents of newborns in the trenches with me that early. What makes being a morning person easier for me is having routines that include moments I enjoy and would like engrained in my day-to-day.

Similarly, I have an evening routine where I try to fit in my workouts and reading – two habits that I love and make me feel balanced. I think part of the reason my routines were so lifesaving for me was because I tried to concentrate habits that can be hard to start but make you feel great after. (This is in contrast to scrolling social media which is easy to start but makes me feel less grounded after.)

Without a routine to fall back on, I probably would have entered those mornings like a deer in headlights. When my mood was off or I was having a hard week, it was nice to be on a reliable autopilot as I rode those emotional waves. It was one less thing to think about. So yes, I cringe a little when people tell me they roll out of bed fifteen minutes before they need to be somewhere. Still, I do know that some people operate well this way, and I am in no position to put how I spend my mornings on a pedestal. Regardless, here are a couple of my morning favourites if you want some inspiration to shift your routine:

Lesson #2: Rest is incredibly productive.

In late October, I started a two-week reset period I branded as “radical rest”. Throughout the year, I “hit the wall” several times and found different ways to push through. By October, none of my usual self-care tactics worked. I couldn’t stop thinking about my never-ending to-do list but also couldn’t bring myself to start a task. How did I address this? I honestly had to embrace my lack of motivation and do nothing for two weeks. Other than my essential meetings and deadlines, I came home from my day and did almost nothing “productive.”

I didn’t study, I didn’t work on research, and I most definitely didn’t look at my to-do list. I remembered how to chill out with my friends, I read books, and I watched TV – ground-breaking stuff, I know. At first, I was going to just make it one week, but I was having so much fun that I decided to make it two. By the end, I felt so much more like myself.

I went two weeks doing very close to nothing and my world did indeed not fall apart. That to-do list that was in the back of my mind every day clearly did not deserve the weight I was giving it.

In my ideal world, I wouldn’t need to have these extreme rest periods to recover from weeks on end of not giving myself interspersed rest. I mentioned this in my blog post about self-care – this oscillation between extremes – and I am still working on it. I will disclaim by saying, part of this may be related to the fact that we only had one week of true vacation this year between the beginning of January and our Christmas Break.  

Discipline is incredibly important to me. I know that to be where you want to be requires dedicated action. But maintaining the stamina it takes to keep showing up also necessitates taking breaks. I am constantly reminding myself that rest is necessary. The need for rest is embedded in humanity despite how our bustling lives can make us feel. We can’t avoid the need for it and hopefully next year I embody this principle a bit more.

Lesson #3: If you cannot change your circumstances, try changing your perspective.*

I think this is my cheesiest lesson but it’s important.

Dr. Nadia Chaudhri was a professor of psychology at Concordia University. In 2020, she was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and earlier this year, she shared her palliative care journey on Twitter. I followed Dr. Chaudhri and every time she posted, she exuded a peace and ease that many hope to emulate. Not to compare struggles, but it does start to feel a little silly to complain about a daily grievance when Dr. Chaudhri could joke online about needing to prevent sores as she became bedridden from her cancer.  This year, she fundraised thousands of dollars to support underrepresented students pursuing science. Above all, she taught a pivotal lesson on the power of perspective through her own outlook on her final days.

Like many others in their twenties and beyond, I had days this year where I felt extremely overwhelmed. For instance, I was excited about my last year of school approaching but also scared at the prospect of leaving my comfortable bubble in Kingston. There was a point in time where I felt like medical school was never going to end and suddenly here we are… at the end. And let me tell you I don’t like endings or goodbyes.

Eventually, I did change my perspective. I reminded myself that I felt exactly the same way at the end of high school and undergrad, and each time I start somewhere new I end up just as happy if not happier in some ways. I experience the growth that only happens from big change. The friends I’ve made in previous chapters have not gone away, the ones that really matter never leave you – if you put the effort in. Now, I’m actually pretty excited. It is the definition of a bittersweet time, but I am not living in loathing of the day I have to say goodbye to the little family I have found in Kingston. Everyone’s heard this Winnie the Pooh quote but it’s a great example of changing your perspective:

As a bonus lesson: pay attention to the lessons in kid’s television and film – there’s bangers.

*And if changing your perspective doesn’t help, the systems we lives in may be at fault. Behind the improvements that come with shifting ones mindset is often a lot of forgotten privilege.

Bring on 2022

I learned plenty of other lessons in 2021 but I do try to keep these around 1500 words! Feel free to comment what lessons you learned this year, I’d love to hear them.

2022 is going to be a trip: graduation, hopefully some travel, likely a big move, and starting residency! It is always a pleasure to see how life unfolds and pushes me. I’m sure I’ll see you here next year with the lessons it brings.

Cheers! Sign up here to be notified when I post next. Always on a Tuesday.

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