Thirty

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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.

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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.

Anki

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Efficiency

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I wanted to think that the rudimentary study schedule I drew for myself was perfect. After all, I’m taking the exam in June and I have put everything in my life on hiatus for the event, which means that I should have endless amounts of free time to study and be on my way to a 528 (the perfect score on the exam which I don’t think anyone has ever scored yet). Yet, at the end of the day, my anxiety creeps up again and questions me repetitively with “Why do you feel like you haven’t done enough work today?” “SHUT IT, Anxiety,” I fight back – “I’m tired and I’m using my exhaustion as a gauge for how hard I worked today.”

“Oh yeah?” Anxiety quips back, “We’ll just see how prepared you feel when Test Day rolls around!”

After laughing at me, Anxiety has sufficiently completed the night’s round of self-torture.

Well, I decided to put my efficiency to the test today in order to see just how I was spending my time. I can’t take credit for this idea, however, as tons of self-help and productivity gurus have written/blogged about it before and I most recently came across it while watching the YouTube channel of med student couple Jane and Jady in this video. I took it a step further than Jady’s strategy of just tracking the amount of time he actually spent studying with the stopwatch feature on his phone. I decided to use an index card.

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Since my alarm went off at 7:15 am, (I was actually awake at about 6:50 am and just rolled around trying to find some last few minutes of solace – so I guess I cheated myself out of those extra 25 minutes of time!), I noted down the activities I completed and the times I started and ended the activity. It wasn’t as obtrusive as I thought it was going to be initially, as I didn’t want to pay for the convenience of the multitude of apps out there that allow you the same features with just the tap of your phone screen. I already carry around my phone with me all day, and the index card was pretty weightless.

After the day was finished, I added up all the time together and put it into categories in an Excel Spreadsheet.

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It turns out, I spent an embarrassing amount of time eating and taking food breaks, and not as long as I thought I did on study time! In my defense, the 101 minutes I spent on a Lunch break included cooking lunch for myself, doing dishes, and doing the laundry in my household (both my parents work and I help out around the house as much as I can now that I’m an adult who lives at home after graduating college.) Another embarrassing quip is that the 22 minutes I spent in the bathroom this morning included taking a shower!

Shockingly, I was able to see a pattern in my study time that I didn’t discover before – until a longer, uninterrupted study session before dinner today (106 minutes), I never noticed that I study in much shorter chunks of time that are approximately 30-40 minutes in length! Even when I was studying for the 106 minute long stretch, I found myself reaching for my phone while watching lecture videos and scrolling through Instagram and Buzzfeed! I also found myself letting Netflix episodes run in the background of my work, not really paying attention to them, like I wanted background conversation to help keep me focused.

So, although the total amount of time spent on MCAT work was 5.716 hours, that includes a 55 minute organizing session in the morning where I worked with the AAMC guides (see the first picture) and organized my flashcards. Today, I spent 4.8 hours of the day actually studying, which is only 36 minutes longer than I spent eating today.

With these lessons in mind, I designed a new schedule that would account for my mind’s wandering in study break form (obviously when we get closer to test day, I won’t be able to take as many little breaks as I want to, and will then be redesigning a study schedule – but remember that MCAT studying is a marathon, not a sprint!), my daily chores, and the fact that I HATE eating and studying at the same time.

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I’ll talk about my budding yoga time in another post soon, but this new schedule allows me to utilize the Pomodoro technique (think 50 minute chunks instead of 25 minute periods) while letting me spend my free time how I want to and still leaving me with spacious food breaks! The best part is, I can increase my efficiency studying by about 130%!

Obviously, life happens, and I don’t expect to stick to this schedule every day! I have lazy days, and off days, and am stuck in a fog on some days too. Weekends are particularly challenging for me, as my whole family is at home and I crave spending time with them! However, this experiment in Efficiency has really opened my eyes to how I actually spend my time as opposed to how I think I spend my time. Perhaps I’ll describe an entire weekend to see how I spend my “free time” there, but I think I’m going to need a bigger index card! 🙂

-A.