Cycles

IMG_2372.JPG

I’ve been unwell these past few days. My heart was beating to its own rhythm, despite many repeated attempts to quell it through meditation and deep breathing. My new yoga challenge, Yoga with Adriene’s Yoga Camp, requires a longer commitment to daily practice (around 40 minutes per day instead of the 15-20 minutes of my previous DoYouYoga.com challenge. My schedule has been thrown off with multiple interruptions, and it’s been really difficult to get back on track. I’ve been spending a longer amount of time on the black hole that is the internet (I’m very active on the Reddit MCAT board, as so many of my fellow students are helping each other out immensely, but I lose a lot of time there). The wifi connectivity in my house is incredibly shoddy, and I’ll often start some work but have to take unexpected pauses because I’ve lost internet connection. I’ve been trying to finish my daily work earlier to catch up with my latest read, Cal Newport’s latest book Deep Work. I’ve had multiple reminders from family and friends about my waitlist status at medical schools. And I’ve just been feeling slow.

I want to curl up in ball and go to sleep forever. I want to be alone for hours and simultaneously be meeting up with people for meals and conversation. I’m drained, but full at the same time.

I’m entering the bad part of my mental cycle.

Over the past couple of months, and especially with the last thirty days’ daily yoga practices, I’ve learned to listen to my body more closely. My body is my master, and my mind is the instrument I use to work with and control it. When the body is calmed in times of meditation, the mind is able to speak to me. I’ve found that the thoughts that enter my consciousness during these periods of silence tend to be the solutions to problems I’ve been considering. I’ve come up with answers to scheduling conflicts, emails with potential employers, lulls in motivation, and all sorts of thoughts that are giving me anxiety (and I know this is true because every time an anxious thought pops up in my mind when I’m trying to study,  I write it down on an index card to deal with it later).

This isn’t just my trademarked phenomenon, however, as many of the world’s prominent figures and regular people alike solve problems through quiet introspection. This is actually one of the recurring themes in my current read, Deep Work by Cal Newport. Cal describes having solved complex proofs and other problems during his doctoral study at MIT on foot, as he took regular runs to and from work to free up his thinking time. Tim Ferriss, productivity guru, has talked about how aspects of his daily routine, like meditation and exercise, enable him to work out solutions.

Yet some days, I cannot calm down. No eustress in my future, as my mind just sends alarm signals that amps me up for some nonexistent stressor. The world gets to me, and I cannot calm down. My brain is taking in too many signals, from a lot of things I could cut out for a while like the internet and my phone constantly going off.

My mood starts slipping, and I lose my sense of gratitude. It starts with me not wanting to engage in my nightly routine, with tasks like brushing my teeth seeming to lose complete meaning. Then, I start to snap at the people I interact with, to the point where I am unable to even explain my thought process to them and just start sighing and grumbling. Then, my daily work seems unbearable – watching concept review videos, or sitting in a lecture, or even just writing down a to-do list. I wrote more about this feeling in Off-Days and Fog.  I’m over the work. I don’t want to do it anymore.

Finally, the culmination of this spin cycle is the sleepless night.

Yes. I spend one night completely awake in my bed with my thoughts running for the hills and no way for me to stop it. I toss and turn and try to find some solace. Even though my eyes are closed, it’s like there is a light being constantly illuminated in my face, and I feel it’s burn even though my eyes are slammed shut. Just like the shedding of the endometrial lining, this sleepless night is the most uncomfortable and painful time of what I’m calling “my mental period”. It’s also the most unexpected, as it usually presents itself after weeks of incredible REM cycles, which makes it the most unpredictable aspect of this whole drama.

See, yesterday, I knew I couldn’t go on anymore. I had lost hours of work after being distracted on the internet. Little spiffs with my parents turned into silent cry-fests. After my 50 minute yoga video, I was so mentally and emotionally drained that I resorted to eating the saltiest food in the house so I wouldn’t collapse from low blood pressure. I’d had enough.

So I got up from my study area, and announced (pretty loudly) that I was going to take a shower. A morning shower is part of my daily routine, and it always helps me re-energize. Back in college, I often started long nights of study with a fresh shower, typically with really scented soap to awaken my senses. After watching some March Madness games (I’m a huge underdog fan so I cheered really hard for Little Rock yesterday!), and a longer-than-normal shower complete with luxurious cocoa butter lotion afterwards, I was ready to take it slow. My family even surprised me by deciding to order pizza, and the two pepperoni slices I found myself reaching for were heaven. I understand the euphoric feeling of a cheat meal, as while I ate my slices yesterday, I wracked my brain to determine when the last time I had pizza was, and my search results were inconclusive. I couldn’t remember. Plus, I’ve been eating really well since my yoga challenge’s beginning, with more fruits and veggies and less processed snacks. The pizza was truly a delight, and as I sat with my family watching college basketball and feeling full, I spoke of my gratitude, and how lucky I felt in that moment. I thought I had beaten the cycle.

Well I forgot about the sleepless night that I was yet to experience.

This morning, I awoke after about 1 hour of rest. I was ecstatic because I knew what was going to happen.

I was going to have a phenomenal day today.

You see, after my sleepless nights, the worst part of my cycle is over. I get back to work with a renewed sense of urgency. Even though my eyes remain tired, my body is thrilled to be rejuvenated, and can’t wait to start rebounding.

I completed my morning meditation and yoga. I’ve been adding yoga twists in the morning to help fully awaken and elongate my spine. I even brought it up to some warrior poses to feel powerful. Pretty soon, before I had even brushed my teeth, I was up at my whiteboard calendar re-working my study schedule and looking through textbooks to pull material for brainstorming.

By the time I had stepped in my morning shower, my mind was abuzz with ideas to install chrome extensions to control my internet time-wasting habits, and delete some useless apps from my iPhone. I was so excited to get to my desk and crank through my daily Anki cards.

Then, I got soap in my eye.

To fully understand my state of mind, you need to be aware that my family is not going through the greatest of times. Finances have always been rough, but my mom was recently laid off. Our car died in the middle of a parking lot (we only have one), and towing to the shop found us in need for a new battery and other parts. Our roof is in need of fixing. My parents have been wearing very old eyeglasses, and get daily headaches from the eyestrain, but cannot afford to get new pairs. To add to this, don’t forget about my rejections from med school and complete uncertainty about my future + depression. It’s what they refer to as “a bad time”.

So when I screamed in pain and sunk to the floor of the shower, completely exposed and vulnerable, we all knew the familiar feeling of sadness that creeps up when we least expect it.

Every time I work so hard for my future, the universe knocks me down rung after rung on the ladder of life until I’m free falling. I randomly grasp at whatever rung is within my reach, and begin the climb over and over again until I’m higher than before. Then I get pushed down. And the cycle repeats.

After many many tears, and arguments that took place way too early in the morning (I brought up my depression, my parents brought up how sick of it they were, yadda yadda yadda), here we are. I’m sitting at my laptop screen typing away because I know that writing and sharing this story will make me feel better than walking up to the fridge and scarfing down slice after slice of the leftover pizza. I made a cup of lemon and ginger herbal tea, and decided to pour some honey in it.

Because some days, life’s terrible, seemingly endless cycle is unbearable. But our universe relies on cycles to survive. The daily rising and setting of the sun promotes balance, and reminds us that tomorrow will be a new day, a new chance to earn glory and feel renewed. The daily turning of our Earth speaks volumes – as for every moment we are in the dark, we will make up for that time by being in the light.

And even though I’m standing deep in the dark right now, and “happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Today, the honey in my tea is my light.

Tomorrow is a new day.

 

–A.

 

 

Advertisements

Thirty

370525-yoga-modi

No I definitely do not look like this, but my inner peace does! photocred

One of the shortest Ted talks I repeatedly refer to for inspiration is by Matt Cutts. The 3 minute 20 second talk describes how Cutts was able to transform every single aspect of his life by trying a hobby for 30 days. He took up photography, rode his bike to work, and even wrote a novel! His challenges had such a positive impact on his life and health, that he was able to advance his career, change his perspective on happiness, and even climb up Mt. Kilamanjaro! He simplifies the idealogy to “small changes = sustainable”.

The phenomenon of “Thirty Day Challenges” are everywhere. Just a quick scroll on Pinterest will show you 30 day detoxes, 30 day happiness plans, 30 day recipe challenges, and so many other diverse projects you can take on. I’ve tried to complete 30 day challenges before – I remember vividly trying to hold abdominal planks for as long as the day’s challenge told me to when I was following the 30 day, 30 plank challenges. I think I gave up around day 4. I also remember trying to follow 30 day fitness calendars, as per the Blogilates regimen. During the summer after my freshman year of college, the pilates calendars were working for me, and I lost around 15 pounds and felt in great shape! Yet, the moment I’d return to campus, the fitness regimens would fall apart.

yoga badge

Well, today was my last day of the DoYouYoga.com 30 Day Beginner Yoga Challenge. I completed all 30 days of yoga videos in order without skipping a single day. I have gained so much in such a little time, and have been able to commit to a safer, healthier lifestyle. Here are some lessons from my experiment:

ONE. Do it every day at the same time – I recently finished reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. The book analyzes habit loops and teaches you how to create a new habit and how powerful habits are in our daily lives. The book opened my eyes to the extent of the role habits play in our psyche. I can tell from the moment I get out of bed in the morning if my day is going to go well or not just by if I remembered to fill up my water bottle so I can drink my morning 8 ounces. If the water bottle is present, I don’t think twice about it and proceed to consider other aspects of morning routine, like showering and eating breakfast. Duhigg writes about the habit loop: a cue which leads you into a routine that ends in a reward. He gives an example of his own habit routine with eating cookies and gaining weight in this video (it’s a fun watch!).

For me, I was able to learn from the book that if I wanted to start a new habit, I’d need to cue myself daily to do the routine, and provide myself with a reward. I set up the cue – an alarm on my phone. This alarm would ring every day at 3:00 pm. It was automatic, and would require no conscious effort on my part. I didn’t want to set myself up to fail, and taking up too much of my mental effort when I’m studying for the MCAT was definitely out of the option. This cue led to me unplugging my laptop and taking it into my bedroom, where my yoga mat sits neatly rolled in a corner, awaiting my routine practice. I’d play the day’s video, usually about 15-18 minutes in length, and allow myself to work towards relaxation and flexibility. Afterwards, I’d roll up my yoga mat and store it in the corner of my room, wash my face and hands, and proceed to the kitchen to enjoy my reward – an afternoon snack. I quickly realized that yoga is best performed on an empty stomach, and wanted to kill 2 birds with one stone (my horrendous afternoon eating habits and lack of activity) by finding a routine that would force me to think about why I was eating.

Pretty soon, I’d find myself consciously stopping workflow around 2:50 and mentally anticipating yoga practice time. I began reading various yoga blogs and learning more about the spirituality behind the practice. As a woman of South Asian descent, I’m familiar with the practice of yoga, but I never before attempting to delve as deeply into the challenge as I found myself going. This leads me to my next point,

TWO. The benefits of Yoga are far beyond the physical movement. I’m dealing with a difficult time in my life, where I see other people able to take flight in their careers and relationships from what feels like my cage at home, as I study to retake an examination and reapply to medical school. Yoga has taught me to walk along a path of acceptance. I cannot control what happened in my past, and I need to learn to only reference it from time to time, not LIVE in it like I am doing. I’d find myself pressed to the verge of tears in poses, wondering whether it was from the pride I felt in being able to hold a downward dog without panting or whether Erin Motz’s points on the yoga video led me to really open up internally. I attempted this project with an open heart, really hoping to explore my inner thoughts on this journey and hoping for the strength to change. Little by little, I found myself replacing my afternoon microwave popcorn snack with an apple (of course it was slathered in peanut butter). I have been able to turn away from caffeine completely (even the little amount in my Tazo Zen), and drink around 3-4 cups of herbal tea daily. I start and end each day with a guided meditation (from calm.com, Stop Breathe Think, and Pacifica). I turn to meditation to take study breaks instead of mindlessly watching Netflix and YouTube. I journal more, and when I express gratitude, I’m really meaning it. I leap out of bed in the morning to cycle through a Vinayasa flow, when 28 days ago I could not even hold a downward dog for more than 30 seconds. I’ve already downloaded the calendar for my next 30 day yoga challenge, and am excited to continue this journey tomorrow.

THREE. My focus and concentration has improved. The most surprising part of these past 30 days was the improvement in my ability to study. I barely noticed it at first. My study sessions were getting longer by 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, a full hour. I found myself in a flow of sorts, an optimal arousal for study without being too distracted or overwhelmed. Whenever I found myself getting overwhelmed, I just focused on deep, diaphragmatic breathing, and brought my attention to myself. I don’t feel shame at falling behind on my study schedules in the past when I’d feel too overwhelmed to continue. Rather, I acknowledge the pieces that led me to feel that way and take an introspective look at myself. I learned that I like to work with music or some documentaries/Ted videos in the background. However, when it’s time for me to learn a difficult concept, I can completely focus on the task at hand. I don’t see my to-do lists as handcuffs anymore, and I don’t feel trapped by my past. I’ve been inspired to work hard and tap into my inner energy for success. And so far, I’ve been very happy with the results.

I hope that you are able to find your yoga, your passion for self-care and relaxation, in whatever means you can. The strategies for taking care of myself will be invaluable for my future career in medicine, and help me accept the present more than I ever did while I was in college, constantly pining of the future.

–A.

Active

IMG_2321

I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s latest book Deep Work, and I remembered why I used to spend hours pouring over his blog, Study Hacks, for life advice. Cal is someone who has mastered it all – he’s been an excellent student, an excellent employee, and an excellent author. I used to read the incredibly intense posts about “Four Weeks to a 4.0” and case studies about how students would earn perfect scores with only about 2 hours of studying, and I would tell myself that I could never become that person. I spent days studying for exams in college, and would end up with sub-par scores every time and hating myself for years afterward because I would see other students earning better grades than me. “How come I can’t be that top-scorer?” I would chide myself – “I’m too stupid for this major/class/exam/goal”. 

It wasn’t until a family tragedy that found me facing three advanced courses, the MCAT, and my research thesis until the tables turned. Suddenly, I found myself having to learn a wealth of knowledge for all of my classes on top of studying for the MCAT the first time around (I scored a 507 on the May 2015 exam). Once I found myself in that do-or-die, sink-or-swim situation, I started DOING. I started SWIMMING. Here’s how:

Remember my last post about flashcards? What I found myself doing last year was one of the most efficient ways of learning material without realizing it. I was studying ACTIVELY.

The most important thing to remember about active studying is that it is the only type of studying that matters. Reading notes passively while highlighting can help with recognition memory, but total recall is the only way to ensure that you know the material without cheating yourself of anything. By employing flashcards, practice exams, and the incredibly famous Cal Newport strategy of teaching the material to other people/pretending you’re lecturing to a classroom, you are forcing your brain to see exactly what it knows and exactly what it doesn’t know. This method is crucial, because when you sit down to take an exam, that’s the point of being tested on material!

I highly recommend watching the Cal Newport talk I posted in the link above. It’s around 40 minutes long, but Newport outlines his 3 step strategy to becoming a top student while maximizing your free time. He doesn’t believe in spending long hours in the library studying. He believes in solely studying actively by testing your brain before you actually have to take the real exam. I revisit this video from time to time to inspire myself. Cal’s point that learning is hard and uncomfortable actually makes me feel better about my own struggles! Everything is hard in the beginning before it is easy, and he really stresses this point that the uncomfortable nature is unavoidable in the learning process.

For me, this feeling of uncomfortable discomfort is coupled with hard-hitting FEAR. I’m always afraid that I won’t be able to learn the material in time, or that even though I’m going to study the material as hard as I can that I’m going to blank on the exam, or that the exam will be too difficult for me, or that I’m going to fail in the medical school application process again.

As usual, in times of panic, we turn to our favorite Jamie Foxx quote:

“What is on the other side of fear?

NOTHING.”

–Jamie Foxx

Now, I add the lessons from the Dr. Andrea Tooley video about tips and tricks for studying. She makes sure to mention that one of her mantras in studying is that she has the capacity to learn anything. Here it is below in quote form:

“I have the capacity to learn ANYTHING. There’s nothing that I can’t learn.”

–Dr. Andrea Tooley

She’s right – it might take you a day or two, or even a full week to learn something properly, but the human brain has an amazing capacity for new material. We are designed to be able to absorb and implement as much new information as possible! That’s how we help human evolution! Our big brains are geared for survival (Evolution is incidentally my least favorite part of Biology, but it’s coming into play here!) And, I was able to see where I went wrong earlier in my college career – I would keep telling myself that I was not smart enough for something.

What complete sh*t. 

I have the capacity to learn ANYTHING. I have the capacity to implement ANYTHING. In 3.5 years, I went from being your average 18 year-old to a qualified Bachelor’s of Science degree-holder. I have learned new languages from scratch. I have taught myself skills like knitting and bike-riding. I have learned how to read music and play an instrument. How did I master these domains? By starting at the beginning and getting over my feelings of being uncomfortable.

Cal Newport was right, again. Learning how to ride a bike was so hard in the beginning! I fell time and time again. It was so painful and uncomfortable! Likewise, I made so many mistakes when learning how to speak Spanish in high school. I embarrassed myself in front of classes of students during oral presentations! When I was learning to play my instrument, I would always embarrass myself in band in front of the other students by playing out of tune or playing in a rest (THE HORROR OF FIFTH GRADE BAND CLASS!).

But by learning actively, and testing myself by getting back on my bike without training wheels, speaking Spanish to others in a clinical setting, and practicing my music until I could play it from memory, I mastered the skill.

We can apply this to academia by testing ourselves.

  • Flashcards are quick and easy ways to pinpoint our weaknesses.
    • Cal Newport and Andrea Tooley share the same idea of creating a quick quiz-and-response sheet. The idea is to write all of your notes for a unit in question and answer form. Write the questions on one side of the page and then fold it in half so you can’t see the answers on the other side. You can quiz yourself anywhere, from walking to class to studying on the treadmill (true Andrea Tooley fashion).
    • When I do my daily Anki, I always try to write out as much information as possible, as if I’m testing myself with a “free recall” situation. They tend to look like this:

FullSizeRender (4)

  • Use practice exams to test yourself in a simulation setting. You can never go into an MCAT without taking a full length exam to see how you react to the 8 hour time conditions! Likewise, don’t go into a course midterm or final until you’ve utilized a practice exam completely.
    • Ideally this works the best if you have access to practice exams from your course and professor. However, making your own practice exam has incredible merits, and by predicting what material your professor is likely to test, you’re prioritizing your studying!
  • LECTURE. OUT LOUD. TO YOURSELF. I have started doing this in my own house, and although my family thinks I’m crazy, it is 100% the most effective study technique I have ever used. You can’t hide from your brain’s false sense of understanding of the material this way!
    • More on this topic in upcoming blog posts! I’m still getting the hang of it!

As a daily affirmation, tell yourself that you have the power to learn anything, and that you should be learning it ACTIVELY!

–A.

 

 

Anki

IMG_2344 (2)

If I could go back in time and tell myself only one WORD before college started, I’d scream ‘ANKI’ in my ear  drum. Or, if you prefer the MCAT Neuroanatomy way, the sound wave would enter through my pinna, proceed through my external auditory canal to the tympanic membrane, follow through the malleus, incus, and stapes until it hit the oval window. From there, the wave would work through the perilymph of my cochlea and start getting converted to electrical signals across the basilar membrane and the hair cells before traveling up the vestibulocochlear nerve. Then, it’d proceed through the brainstem to finally be interpreted in the auditory cortex of the temporal lobe. Today’s post is about how I was FINALLY able to learn that process and not be intimidated by it.

According to the internet, “anki” 暗記 means “learning by heart; memory work.” *Ankisuru 暗記する means learn by heart commit to memory. Anki is a flashcard program that provides spaced repetition based on how well you feel you have learned the material. I have seen the tool pop up on several premed and medical school student blogs and decided it convert over from my beloved Quizlet and Study Blue websites that I use to make my online flashcards.

anki1

This is what the Anki home screen looks like. I have created decks for all of the MCAT topics under the username MCAT Study. Each day, I have a certain number of flaschards “due” for me to study based on how I rated the flashcards I studied yesterday. Every morning, after I tackle my MCAT Questions of the Day in my email inbox, I sit down to work through all of the cards that I have “due”. I’ve found that Anki works the best when you review the cards every day, and I’ve incorporated the flashcard review into my daily studying.

anki2To create new cards, click the ADD button in between DECKS and BROWSE. From there, you can add to a new Deck or an existing Deck. You can even add images, audio, and video clips to the cards. I’ve found many tutorials on YouTube instructing users on how to create card loops and multiple cards from a single image. For now, I’m usually typing up practice discrete questions and regular formulas and facts I have to memorize.

anki3

When you start studying, the cards you have created pop up question first. This card was one of today’s Behavioral Sciences cards (Chapter 2 of Kaplan Behavioral Sciences). After you answer the card out loud, in your head, or on paper – I jot down the answers on flashcards to use up the HUNDREDS of blank flashcards I have left over from college – I hit the space bar for the answer/back of the card to pop up.

anki4

After the answer is displayed, Anki’s rating system is displayed at the bottom, allowing me to decide how well I think I know the matter that is being tested. Then, the card will be shown to me in the time interval I have specified. This is incredibly perfect for studying for exams, LIKE THE MCAT, when you are studying months in advance and need to remember all of the information for a very long time. I wish I was able to use this as a college student to make flashcards on lecture material for exams! Can’t you see how awesome this tool would be to study for a cumulative final!

anki7

You can even change the settings for cards as well based on how many you need to review!)I’m currently studying Thermodynamics and Thermochemistry, and finished my “due” cards for today. However, even though I finished the number of cards Anki gave to me, I hit the CUSTOM STUDY button to add more cards for today’s study only. You have the options to customize everything about the repetition of your deck.

anki5

This morning was the first time I saw this card, so notice how little the increments of time are – 1 minute, 10 minutes, and 4 days. I usually hit the 10 minute button so Anki knows that I want to review this card more than others in my deck.

anki6

At the end of the studying session, Anki tells you how many cards you studied and how long you spent studying them (it manages your time for you! How awesome is that!!?!) There’s nothing more satisfying than going down the line and seeing that you have no cards “due” for that day.

Even though it seems like a massive pain to create your own Anki decks, I highly recommend you spend the time and actually do it! I cannot stress this enough! As you can see, the spaced repetition of the material is based on your own preferences. I make cards based on my own weak material, and I know that trying to learn a big deck of cards would be useless if it didn’t include my personal weaknesses.

anki8

For example, when I created this card, I specifically included the two questions on there to focus my memorization on what was really important about Broca’s Area in the brain. I’m always confusing the functions of Broca’s Area with Wernicke’s Area, and the MCAT loves to take advantage of this! However, now that I’ve specifically created a card for this topic, and can use Anki’s spaced repetition to make sure I don’t forget the functions, I see it way more often that if I used a pre-made deck. Now, as soon as I’m prompted with this card, my mind goes to the mneumonic I’ve created for the location of Broca’s area (BF = BoyFriend = Broca’s Area in Frontal Lobe), and connect that to the function of Broca’s Area, which is speech production!

It’s also incredibly tedious to go through all of the “due” flashcards each day, but I know it will be worth it when I achieve my dream score on the MCAT! I’m already seeing the effects of Anki when I tackle my MCAT Questions of the Day and daily sample passages! Furthermore, I don’t have to spend a dedicated day to review when I’m looking through all of the relevant material each day!

I think the only downside to Anki is that the mobile app they’ve created in companion to the downloaded software is $25 on the app store! That’s really expensive in comparison to free apps like Quizlet, but if I needed to study on the go for classes and the MCAT, I would be sure to make the investment. I plan on making that purchase when I enter med school or a post-bac program!

Now it’s time to get back to work!

-A.