In their own words: 13 docs share life hacks for staying sane during residency

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published April 11, 2023

Key Takeaways

Residency is beyond challenging. From grueling hours, lack of sleep, and endless studying, to complex patient cases and challenging attendings, residency can take a tremendous toll on your well-being.

Although there is light at the end of the tunnel—residency is not forever, after all—it's imperative to adopt wellness routines or "life hacks" that can help you maintain your sanity during these few challenging years of medical training. 

What works for me

I found that going on long runs, spending time with my dogs, cooking and eating nutritious foods, spending quality time with friends, and binge-watching Netflix were my go-to hacks for taking care of myself during residency.

Engaging in healthy outlets that bring you peace, comfort, and happiness is just as important as showing up to a long shift to provide care for your patients. You must first nurture yourself before you can care for others.

We asked medical residents to share their life hacks for surviving residency. Here's what they had to say.

Doctors supporting each other

Support, boundaries, and gratitude

Jake Jacob, MD

  • Residency can be challenging, and it's important to have a support system in place. This can include fellow residents, mentors, family, and friends.

  • It can be tempting to work around the clock during residency, but it's important to set boundaries and take breaks. Try to avoid checking your work email or phone during your time off. Spend time with loved ones or engage in hobbies and activities that bring you joy.

  • Take time each day to reflect on what you're thankful for, whether it's a supportive coworker, a successful patient outcome, or a small moment of joy. Practicing gratitude can help shift your mindset and improve your overall well-being.

"Don't be afraid to reach out for help or to vent when you're feeling overwhelmed."

Jake Jacob, MD, Baylor College of Medicine

Doctor eating healthy lunch

The importance of sticking to healthy routines

Cindy Tsui, MD

  • Establish and maintain a routine to ensure the predictability and security of at least some basic parts of your everyday life. For example, I prioritize eating three meals a day consistently during my daytime rotations.

  • My social support system has been an invaluable source of strength and fun during residency. I am fortunate to work in the same city as my family, partner, and most of my closest friends, who include other medical professionals as well as people not in medicine.

  • Make time for hobbies. While the residency schedule prevents frequent traveling or hiking, I have easy everyday hobbies such as singing, which I can do almost anywhere. I also love playing Duolingo, hanging out virtually with my family and partner, learning about plants and birds on the Seek app, and playing solo or group puzzle games.

"Food is something I look forward to and enjoy. For others, it might be their morning coffee or protein shake."

Cindy Tsui, MD

Man enjoying the sunset

Adopt a marathon mindset, but decompress, too

Thomas P., DO

While I don't know if I would consider myself sane, I think all residents should prepare for residency with the following tips:

  • Instead of waiting for the last 3 months to study for ABIM, try to spend 30 minutes learning something specific.

  • Next, have a financial game-plan going into residency. Try your best to understand budgeting and long-term investments because cost-of-living is going up everywhere.

  • Lastly, have activities outside of medicine to help with burnout—and you should also have quick activities to destress.

"Understand that learning medicine is a marathon and not a sprint. "

Thomas P., DO, PGY3 Internal Medicine Resident, Abrazo Health Network

Doctor laughing

Stay true to yourself, nourish your inner extrovert 

Adelaide Ubah, MD

Life hacks that helped me stay sane during residency were:

  • Staying true to who I was, both inside and outside of work, which is a fun-loving and happy person. 

  • Never bringing work home. I would finish all of my notes at work before coming home no matter how long it took.

"I made sure I fed my extroverted nature by going out often."

Adelaide Ubah, MD

ADMIN2-man sleeping in bed

Sleep and granola bars go a long ways

Ismaeel Bakhsh, MD

  • First of all, I make sure I eat something whenever there's time. I always have a snack like a granola bar in my pocket just in case it's a busy day and there isn't enough time to take a break for a meal.

  • Second, I sleep when I have time. Residency is not an ordinary job, working hours are long, sometimes having to work 6 days a week, and spending more than 24 hours at the hospital. So sleep is very important, even if that means missing some social gatherings.

  • Last but not least, it is important to have good relationships with colleagues, and enjoy the time at work.

"Love what you do. It'll be very hard if you wake up in the morning and don't feel like going to work."

Ismaeel Bakhsh, MD

More life hacks for staying sane in residency

Vasudha Kota—"Talking to my family abroad and remembering all the challenges that we faced to match into a residency program in the USA. Binging TV for some alone time. Netflix or Prime helped me to divert myself." 

Priyanka Moondra, DO—"Drink a ton of water whenever you can. Take the stairs to remain active and boost your physical energy. Fill those pockets with easy snacks."

Gregory Benn MD—"Praying, exercising, nature walks."

Zaheer Cheema, MD—"My family and especially my wife and children. I am a cricket player. So cricket on the weekends. And of course outings with friends."

Kelechi Acholonu, DO—"Treat yourself with kindness."

David Vogel, DO—"What helped me the most, and still does today, is regular exercise, taking time for myself for my hobbies, and turning off my brain from medicine for a bit."

Adnan Manzoor, MD—"Taking mini-vacations when necessary, and attending all wellness events."

Parting thoughts

Everyone has their own outlets, passions, and hobbies. Sometimes coping with residency means spending your one day off indulging in these, whether it be working on an art project, planning a vacation, hanging out with loved ones, or catching up on sleep.

If you find yourself struggling to find peace and happiness with coping mechanisms that once helped, or if you're using unhealthy behaviors to cope with residency, it may be beneficial to talk to a therapist about how you are feeling.

Residency is challenging, but hopefully you can find joy even in the darkest of moments. 

Every medical resident has a question to ask and a story to tell—a comical moment, a prickly patient encounter, or a hack for staying sane during residency. We survey medical trainees for their best questions and answers and bring them to you in this column. Engaging, enlightening, and entertaining—from resident to resident! 

Read Next: 10 medical residents recount the heartbreak of their toughest patient cases

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