Dr. Harleen Ghuttora

Welcome to R1!

Residency is an exciting time; you are officially a doctor with new responsibilities. Residency will be demanding with long hours on call and lots of learning. However, life outside of residency is equally important for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and it’s crucial not to lose sight of ourselves in the process.

In the limited time you have between call shifts and studying for your rotations, how can you continue to maintain your sense of self outside of residency? Here are a few tips that have helped me:

1)      Take a mental health day

Throughout residency, it’s easy to neglect our mental health amidst the long shifts, challenging cases with high emotional fatigue and constant pressure to perform.

Just as we care for our patients, we must care for ourselves. Don’t hesitate to take mental health days when needed. Recognize the signs of burnout, compassion fatigue, overwhelming stress, anxiety and give yourself permission to rest and recharge. Remember residency is a marathon, not a sprint! Sometimes, doing absolutely nothing for a day is exactly what we need to regain our strength and mental clarity; schedule this in your calendar and follow through. Normalize seeking support from mental health professionals and engage in self-care practices regularly. For example, nap when you can, practice mindfulness or meditation, write a gratitude journal or share a meal or fun activity with friends/family.

2)      Stay active

We all know exercise helps to maintain physical and mental health. But how many times have you recommended the 150 minutes of vigorous exercise per week to a patient and then thought about the last time you did the same? However, it’s challenging to maintain a consistent exercise regimen with changing sleep cycles, family responsibilities and lack of time to meal prep. As someone who struggles to incorporate physical activity in my daily routine, my tip is to find an exercise routine that you enjoy and better yet enjoy with an exercise partner. Whether it’s going for a run, joining a gym, practicing yoga, consistency is the key. Do not wait for the perfect moment to devote time for exercise (I tend to wait until all the stars have aligned to drag myself to the gym), exercise can be done anytime, anywhere. Do what you can when you can. Have an extra 10 minutes before rounds? Take the stairs or do a few push-ups/squats in the stairwell. The awkward look your colleagues will give you is well worth the benefits.

3)      Rediscovering and pursuing new hobbies:

Residency often leaves little time for personal interests and losing yourself and your hobbies in residency is easy. Remember all those wonderful extracurriculars on your medical school applications? Find time to do the activities you love or learn new hobbies! Personally, I like painting, pottery, learning to play guitar or gardening. Ask a friend to teach you a new skill that they excel in! The key is to schedule hobby time into your weekly routine, even 10 min of creative work helps to disengage the mind from the repetitive nature of residency. This is an investment in your mental health.

4)      Living in the present:

Residency often pushes us to focus solely on the future—completing the current block, finishing residency, writing exams, pursuing fellowships or establishing a medical career. However, it’s vital to live in the present and appreciate the journey. An uncertain future is stressful (i.e. second round of CaRMS) but when you find yourself in a stressful situation, try what (sometimes) works for me: ask yourself, is the source of my stress an issue in the present or the future? If the stressor is in the future and you can’t identify any actionable items, then refocus your attention to the present. However, if you can identify actionable items, break it down into smaller list of tasks and start with the easiest task.

Take moments to pause, appreciate the progress you’ve made and find ways to enjoy the present.

5)      Establishing boundaries and expectations

Sometimes, it feels like the work never ends with extra shifts, research and extra-curriculars. It is crucial to establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. Set realistic expectations for when you will finish your research, learn to say "no" when necessary for extracurricular opportunities and delegate tasks when appropriate. Consciously allocating time for self-care will help prevent burnout. Use all of that vacation time!

In his book Atomic Habits (recommend this read!), James Clear emphasizes the power of small incremental changes. Rather than relying solely on motivation and waiting for the perfect moment, take the first step. Start small and build momentum over time. Residency is an intense phase of our lives, but do not allow it to consume your entire existence. As you embark on this new journey, take the time to nurture your own well-being, find and schedule time to enjoy your hobbies or create new ones. Don’t wait for the perfect moment to focus on yourself, the moment is now. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “Do it, do it now!”


Dr. Harleen Ghuttora is an Internal Medicine resident physician at the University of Calgary. 

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