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As you embark on the lengthy and challenging journey to become an independent physician, I want to acknowledge the unwavering dedication and motivation required to reach your goal. The path ahead is not easy, but I am here to offer guidance and support as you navigate the demanding world of medicine.

Becoming a skilled and compassionate physician is a noble pursuit that demands significant sacrifices and perseverance. I know from direct experience the long hours of studying, the pressure of exams, and the emotional toll of patient care. It can be hard to stay motivated and can take a toll on your mental health.

However, I have also witnessed the incredible rewards of this profession—the opportunity to make a profound difference in the lives of others.

Throughout your journey, you will undoubtedly face numerous obstacles and challenges. There will be moments when you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and perhaps even discouraged. Maintaining your motivation and prioritizing your physical and mental well-being becomes paramount during these times.

In this article, I will share strategies that helped me stay motivated throughout my years as a student and a resident. We will explore together how you can cultivate the resilience, passion, and determination needed to thrive in the demanding world of medicine.

Remember, you have the potential to succeed, and I am here to offer my support and encouragement every step of the way.

Your Medical Journey in a Nutshell

Embarking on your journey to become a physician is not for the faint of heart. Let me give you a glimpse of what you can expect.

Picture of a person standing on a road with an arrow pointing forward and the word start in front of the person.

Your journey begins with four years of college, excelling in pre-medical coursework while engaging in extracurricular activities, research, and/or volunteer work to make your medical school application stand out. Once you’ve conquered the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and successfully applied, you’ll spend the next four years in medical school.

Medical school immerses you in a rigorous curriculum that tests your limits. You’ll spend countless hours in lectures, laboratories, and clinical rotations, learning everything from anatomy and physiology to pharmacology and medical ethics. The three-step USMLE exams (United States Medica Licensing Exams) will be challenging, and the pressure will be high. You’ll travel all over the country interviewing for limited residency spots in anticipation of celebrating your Match in March of your final year.

After medical school comes residency, lasting three to seven years, depending on your chosen specialty. You’ll work long hours, often on call overnight and on weekends, honing your skills and gaining hands-on experience. I won’t sugarcoat it – residency can be grueling, and you may question if it’s all worth it. I’ve been there. I often joke that I don’t remember much from those years – they were the dark ages of my medical career… haha

But once you make it through and become a fully licensed physician, you’ll have achieved something truly remarkable. You’ll have a stable and rewarding career that allows you to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives every day. You’ll build long-lasting relationships with patients, be there for them during their most vulnerable moments, and help them achieve better health and well-being. And let’s not forget the practical benefits – as a physician, you’ll have job security and financial stability that few other professions can offer.

Becoming a physician is undoubtedly challenging, but you don’t have to go through it alone. A whole community of physicians, mentors, and colleagues is here to support you. Take a deep breath, stay focused on your goals, and know you have what it takes to reach the other side.

Staying Motivated: How to Keep Going (Even When You’re Sleep-Deprived)

Now that you have a better understanding of the journey ahead, let’s talk about the key ingredient that will keep you going through the ups and downs: motivation. Staying motivated is crucial to your success as a future physician, but it can be challenging, especially when you’re running on little sleep and facing endless demands on your time and energy.

In this section, I’ll share strategies for cultivating the resilience and determination you need to thrive in adversity. These tips will progress from foundational techniques to more sophisticated approaches. While I’ve arranged these tips in a progression, they are all valuable and interconnected, providing you with a comprehensive toolkit to maintain your motivation throughout your medical journey.

It’s important to note that many of these strategies are not merely anecdotal advice but grounded in scientific research and proven methodologies. Some strategies may seem deceptively simple, but their power lies in their ability to create subtle shifts in your mindset and habits over time.

Like any skill, maintaining motivation requires practice and patience. Approach these tips with a spirit of curiosity and self-compassion, and trust that each small step you take brings you closer to your goals.

Set Clear Goals

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1. Define your short-term and long-term goals.

In college and medical school, it’s crucial to think beyond the broad, long-term goal of becoming a physician and consider the details of your dream job.

Start by asking yourself what aspects of medicine excite you the most and give you energy. Do you thrive on the adrenaline rush of emergencies or prefer building long-term relationships with patients? Are you drawn to the complexity of the human brain? Or do you find satisfaction in the intricacies of the musculoskeletal system? Do you envision yourself working in a bustling urban hospital, a rural community clinic, a research laboratory, or from home? Answering these questions will help you identify the specialty and practice setting that aligns with your interests, values, and strengths, setting you up for a fulfilling career.

Once you have a clearer understanding of your desired specialty, set short-term objectives to work towards. For example, suppose you aspire to become a pediatrician. In that case, your short-term goals might include shadowing a pediatrician, volunteering at a children’s hospital, engaging in pediatric research, or achieving a specific grade in your pediatrics rotation.

Write down your goals and place them somewhere visible, such as on your desk or bathroom mirror, to serve as a constant reminder of what you’re working towards and to keep yourself accountable. Regularly review and adjust your goals as needed to ensure you stay on track.

2. Break down goals into manageable tasks.

As a medical student or resident, you may often feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information you need to learn and the skills you need to develop. Breaking large goals into smaller, manageable tasks – a strategy known as “chunking” – can help reduce these feelings of overwhelm and increase motivation by providing a sense of progress and accomplishment.

Create a to-do list or use a goal-setting app to break your goals into smaller, actionable steps. For example, if your goal is to excel in your surgery rotation, break it down into smaller tasks, such as reading a chapter of a surgery textbook daily, practicing suturing techniques for an hour weekly, and seeking feedback from your attending physician after each procedure.

As you complete each task, cross it off your list. Celebrating your completed tasks provides a powerful sense of accomplishment that boosts your self-motivation. Embrace the power of small wins.

3. Visualize success.

Visualization is a powerful technique that can help boost motivation by creating a vivid mental image of your desired outcome. Use this technique to imagine yourself succeeding in your coursework, excelling in your clinical rotations, or practicing medicine independently.

Spend a few minutes each day visualizing yourself achieving your goals. Close your eyes and engage all your senses as you make the image as detailed as possible. For example, imagine yourself walking across the stage at your medical school graduation, feeling the weight of your diploma in your hand, and seeing the proud smiles on your family’s faces.

This practice can help you maintain a positive mindset and stay focused on your objectives, especially when faced with setbacks or challenges. 

Take Care of Your Physical Health

4. Prioritize sleep.

Given the demands of your medical education, you may feel that sleep is a luxury you can’t afford. However, adequate sleep is crucial for cognitive function, emotional regulation, attention, and decision-making. Thus, sleep is a necessity!

Even if you can’t get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, you can focus on improving the quality of the sleep you can obtain. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows to enhance your sleep quality and create a dark and quiet environment using eye masks or earplugs to make it easier to fall asleep. 

Additionally, limit your exposure to electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime to prevent the blue light emitted by these devices from interfering with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Update your phone settings to filter out blue light at night.

5. Exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet.

Regular physical activity and a balanced diet are essential for maintaining energy levels, reducing stress, and promoting overall health.

Find forms of exercise that you enjoy and that fit into your busy schedule, whether it’s jogging, yoga, or team sports, and make them a regular part of your routine. If you struggle to find time for a dedicated workout, look for opportunities to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking or cycling to work, or doing a quick bodyweight exercise in your dorm or on-call room.

If you’re a multi-tasker like me, study notes while on the elliptical or between weight-lifting sets!

Additionally, fuel your body with a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats to support optimal brain function and energy levels. Prepare healthy snacks and meals in advance to avoid relying on vending machines or fast food during long study sessions or clinical shifts.

6. Limit alcohol consumption and avoid substance abuse.

The stresses of medical education can sometimes lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as excessive alcohol consumption or substance abuse. As a physician, the consequences of addiction can be particularly devastating, not only for your personal well-being but also for the safety and care of your patients.

It’s important to recognize that addictions tend to worsen over time, especially in high-stress professions like medicine. If left unaddressed, substance abuse can lead to severe consequences, such as harm to patients, malpractice lawsuits, and even criminal offenses. The thought of inadvertently causing harm to a patient due to substance abuse is a burden that no physician should have to bear.

If you find yourself struggling with excessive alcohol consumption or substance abuse, it’s crucial to seek help as soon as possible. Confiding in a trusted colleague, mentor, or healthcare professional can be the first step in getting the support you need. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and it’s always better to address the issue on your own terms rather than waiting for others to intervene.

Be mindful of your habits and seek healthier ways to manage stress, such as through exercise, mindfulness, hobbies, talking with friends or professionals, or joining support groups rather than drugs or alcohol. Developing healthy coping mechanisms will help you build resilience for your entire medical career.

Utilize Time Management Strategies

7. Prioritize tasks and create a schedule.

Effective time management is critical to avoiding feeling overwhelmed. The Eisenhower Matrix is a popular tool for prioritizing tasks based on urgency and importance. Divide your tasks into four categories: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important. Focus on completing tasks in the first two categories and delegate or eliminate tasks in the latter two. 

Create a schedule that balances your studies, clinical responsibilities, and personal life, and stick to it as much as possible. Be okay with the fact that you can’t do everything on your own. Accept help from others, whether it’s through study groups, mentorship, or personal support, as it can significantly improve your ability to manage your workload and maintain your mental well-being. Always show appreciation for those who assist you, and pay it forward when you can.

8. Use productivity tools and apps.

Technology can be a valuable ally in staying organized and improving your efficiency. Experiment with different tools, such as task management software (e.g., Trello, Asana), note-taking apps (e.g., Evernote, OneNote), or study aids (e.g., Anki, Quizlet) to create a system that works for you. Use these tools consistently to streamline your workflow and maintain motivation.

9. Learn to say “no” to non-essential commitments.

Your time is valuable, and it’s essential to prioritize your commitments. The art of saying “no” is a crucial skill for avoiding burnout. Evaluate each new commitment based on its alignment with your goals and values. If a request doesn’t support your priorities or would strain your time or energy, practice politely declining. Remember that saying “no” to non-essential commitments allows you to say “yes” to the things that truly matter for your personal and professional growth.

This principle also applies to managing your email inbox. You’ll likely receive numerous emails each day. To keep your inbox manageable, develop a strategy for prioritizing and responding to emails. Set aside specific times during the day to check and reply to emails rather than constantly monitoring your inbox. Use filters and labels to organize incoming messages based on their importance and urgency automatically. Only reply immediately to those directly relevant to your work or studies.

Develop a Strong Support System

10. Surround yourself with positive influences.

Surrounding yourself with positive, supportive people who share your values and goals can make the challenging medical education journey not just bearable but truly enjoyable and rewarding. The friendships you form during this time can be invaluable, providing a network of support that extends far beyond your years in training. Cherish the friendships you make along the way, knowing that these relationships will not only contribute to your success as a future physician but also to your overall happiness and satisfaction in life.

11. Find a mentor or role model in the medical field.

A good mentor can help you navigate the challenges of medical education, offer advice on career decisions, provide constructive feedback, and inspire you to reach your full potential. They can also serve as extrinsic motivation, encouraging you to strive for excellence while guiding you toward your goals.

To find a mentor, identify experienced physicians or researchers whose work aligns with your interests and values. This could be a teacher or attending physician you click with during your clinical rotations or a researcher whose work you admire. Reach out to them for advice and express your interest in learning from their experiences. Once you’ve established a connection, cultivate the relationship by staying in touch regularly, seeking their guidance on specific challenges or decisions, and updating them on your progress.

The mentor-mentee relationship feels rewarding for both parties. As a mentee, you gain invaluable wisdom, support, and guidance; your mentor, in turn, can share their knowledge, contribute to your growth, and leave a positive legacy in the medical field.

As you progress in your career, consider paying it forward by becoming a mentor yourself. By guiding and supporting the next generation of physicians, you can help shape the future of medicine and find a deep sense of purpose and satisfaction in your work.

12. Join study groups.

Collaborating with peers can be a powerful source of motivation, accountability, and learning. Join or create study groups with classmates with similar learning styles. Engaging in peer-to-peer education reinforces your own understanding of the material, as teaching others forces you to clarify your thoughts, identify gaps in your knowledge, and find new ways to communicate complex ideas.

Studying with peers also allows you to discover each other’s tips and tricks for learning and remembering important concepts. By learning from and teaching each other, you can collectively develop a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and feel more confident in your knowledge.

Remember, your classmates are going through the same challenges and experiences as you, so lean on each other for support, encouragement, and inspiration.

Image from above of five people studying together at a table.

Maintain Work-Life Harmony

13. Prioritize self-care and mental health.

Self-care doesn’t have to be some grand gesture or time-consuming activity. It’s all about finding small, manageable ways to care for yourself throughout the day. Try taking a few deep breaths between patients or during a quick study break. Pack a healthy snack so you’re not running on empty during long shifts or study sessions. Take a moment to stretch your body, especially if you’ve been poring over textbooks or patient charts for hours in the same spot.

Don’t underestimate the power of human connection, either. Make time for a quick phone call or video chat with a loved one, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Hearing a friendly voice and sharing a laugh can do wonders to improve your mood and motivation. Another simple but effective strategy is to practice gratitude. Jot down three things you’re thankful for at the end of each day, no matter how small, to create an ongoing list of the positive aspects of your life.

Find a way to step outside for some fresh air during the day. The change of scenery can help clear your mind and recharge your batteries. After a long day, read or listen to a chapter of a fun novel. Engaging in activities that help you relax is just as important as studying and working.

Your mental health is important. Make it a priority.

14. Schedule time for hobbies and social activities.

Regularly engaging in hobbies and social activities can provide a much-needed break. Set aside a few hours each week for a hobby you love, whether playing an instrument, exploring your artistic side, or engaging in a favorite sport or physical activity. This will give you something to look forward to and help you develop skills and interests outside medicine.

Similarly, make it a priority to nurture your social connections. Plan regular get-togethers with friends and loved ones, even if it’s just a quick coffee catch-up or a virtual game night. Surrounding yourself with supportive/positive people who understand the challenges you’re facing can provide a sense of camaraderie and help you feel less alone.

Remember, laughter and fun are potent antidotes to stress, so don’t be afraid to let loose and enjoy yourself when you can.

15. Practice stress-management techniques.

Stress is inevitable in your medical career, so developing effective stress-management techniques early on is crucial. One powerful tool is mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Another technique is progressive muscle relaxation, which involves systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups throughout your body, helping you develop a greater awareness of your physical and mental state.

In addition to these techniques, don’t underestimate the power of self-expression to manage stress. Journaling your thoughts and feelings, talking through your challenges with a trusted friend or therapist, or engaging in creative activities like writing or drawing can help you constructively process stress. Experiment with different techniques and be kind to yourself as you make stress management a regular part of your self-care routine.

Develop Resilience

Picture of several blocks with the word "resilience" on them and a cactus plant in the background.

16. Learn from your failures and setbacks.

Medical school and residency are the perfect times to learn valuable lessons that will serve you throughout your career. It’s far better to make mistakes now when you have the support and guidance of more experienced physicians than later when you’re practicing independently. Embrace the opportunity to learn from your errors and grow as a result.

For example, if you miss an important finding on a patient’s exam or make an incorrect diagnosis, take the time to understand where you went wrong and how you can avoid similar mistakes in the future. Discuss the situation with your attending or a trusted mentor, and ask for feedback on how you can improve your clinical skills and decision-making processes. I’ve used this to develop a robust and trusted search pattern for every radiology study I read.

Similarly, if you experience a setback in your research or academic work, use it as a chance to refine your methods, seek out additional resources, or collaborate with others who can offer new perspectives and expertise.

Remember, the lessons you learn during your medical education will shape the physician you become. By embracing failures and setbacks as opportunities for growth, you’ll develop the resilience, adaptability, and critical thinking skills necessary to provide the best possible care to your future patients.

17. Develop a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is the belief that you can continually expand your abilities and knowledge through dedication, effort, and learning from both successes and failures. This perspective allows you to approach obstacles as opportunities for growth rather than threats to your self-worth.

To cultivate a growth mindset, start by reframing your internal dialogue. When faced with a difficult situation or task, instead of thinking, “I don’t have the skills to handle this” or “I’m not smart enough to solve this problem,” tell yourself, “This is an opportunity to learn and improve my clinical reasoning.” Recognize that every challenge you encounter is a chance to expand your knowledge and skills and that setbacks are a natural part of the learning process.

Another key aspect of developing a growth mindset is embracing the power of “yet.” When you find yourself struggling to master a particular procedure or grasp a complex medical concept, remind yourself that you haven’t mastered it “yet,” but with continued effort, practice, and learning, you will get there. This simple shift in language can help you maintain a sense of hope and determination, even in the face of steep learning curves and high expectations.

18. Seek feedback and use it constructively.

Actively seeking feedback from mentors, supervisors, and colleagues is essential for personal and professional growth. Constructive feedback helps you identify your strengths and weaknesses, set achievable goals for improvement, and monitor your progress.

When receiving feedback, approach it with an open and curious mindset. Listen carefully, ask clarifying questions, and resist the urge to become defensive. Focus on understanding the perspective of the person providing the feedback and look for specific, actionable steps you can take to address areas for improvement.

Reflect on the feedback you receive and develop a plan for implementing changes. Regularly assess your progress and adjust your plan as needed. Remember, seeking and utilizing feedback is a sign of strength and commitment to ongoing learning and growth.

Embrace Lifelong Learning

19. Stay curious and open to new experiences.

Medicine is a dynamic field that constantly evolves, and maintaining a sense of curiosity and openness to new experiences can help you stay engaged. Cultivate a habit of asking questions, seeking new information, and exploring diverse perspectives. Attend lectures or workshops on topics that pique your interest, even if they fall outside your immediate area of study. Engage in conversations with colleagues and mentors who can expose you to new ideas and challenges.

By staying curious and open to new experiences, you can maintain a fresh perspective and find renewed motivation in the ever-expanding world of medicine.

20. Attend conferences and workshops.

Participating in conferences, workshops, and seminars can provide valuable opportunities for learning, networking, and professional growth. Seek out conferences and workshops that align with your interests and goals, and make an effort to engage actively in the sessions. Take notes, ask questions, and connect with other attendees who share your passions. These experiences can expose you to cutting-edge research, innovative techniques, and inspiring mentors, reigniting your enthusiasm for medicine.

Additionally, presenting your own work at conferences can boost your self-confidence and communication skills, two essential qualities that will serve you well throughout your medical career.

21. Maintain a broad knowledge base.

It is important to maintain a broad knowledge base within and beyond your chosen specialty. Staying informed about advancements in various fields can help you understand how different specialties are interconnected and how new technologies, including artificial intelligence, can shape the future of healthcare.

This broader perspective can inspire you to think creatively about how you can contribute to improving patient care and outcomes, whether through interdisciplinary collaborations, the application of new technologies, or the development of novel approaches to long-standing challenges in the practice and business of medicine.

By staying curious, informed, and open to new ideas, you can position yourself to be a leader in driving positive change and shaping the future of medicine for the benefit of your patients and society as a whole. Embrace this mindset, and you’ll find yourself at the forefront of medical innovation and progress.

Find Purpose and Meaning

22. Remember why you chose medicine.

When faced with challenges and setbacks, it’s easy to lose sight of why you chose to pursue a medical career. Take time to reflect on your initial motivations for entering the medical field, whether it was a desire to help others, a fascination with the human body, or a drive to make a positive impact on society. Write down your reasons and keep them visible as a reminder of your deeper purpose. When you feel discouraged or overwhelmed, revisit these reasons and let them reignite your passion and motivation for your chosen path.

Picture of a physician with his hand on the shoulder of an elderly patient.

23. Reflect on the impact you can make on patients’ lives.

As a physician, you have the unique opportunity to directly improve the lives of your patients through your knowledge, skills, and compassion. Consider the trust and responsibility placed in your hands and the difference you can make in the lives of those you serve.

Reflect on patient interactions that have been particularly meaningful or rewarding, and let these experiences serve as a source of inspiration and purpose. Always keep the human element of your work at the forefront of your mind.

24. Participate in volunteer work or community outreach.

Engaging in volunteer work or community outreach activities can help you stay connected to the human aspect of medicine and maintain a sense of purpose beyond your daily responsibilities. Look for opportunities to serve your community through free health screenings, educating the public on important health topics, or volunteering at a local clinic or non-profit organization.

By witnessing the direct impact of your efforts on the lives of others, you can find renewed motivation and meaning in your work as a physician. Additionally, these experiences can help you develop essential skills, such as communication, empathy, and cultural competence, which will serve you throughout your medical career.


Staying motivated throughout the lengthy and demanding journey of becoming an independent physician is no easy feat. However, by implementing the strategies outlined in this article, you can maintain your motivation, take care of your physical and mental health, and ultimately achieve your goals.

As you navigate the challenges of medical education and training, be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion. Celebrate your progress, no matter how small, and remember that setbacks and failures are opportunities for growth. Stay connected to your passion for medicine and the positive impact you can and will! make on the lives of others. Keep going – just one day at a time! – and you will undoubtedly succeed in your journey to becoming a physician.

If you’d like to explore additional resources on motivation, I recommend checking out the following articles: