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Agony Aunt Week 1: Keeping up with course content, staying motivated, making new friends in a pandemic and dealing with lockdown

Hi everyone,

This is our Agony Aunt project which is based on the advice columns you would typically see in newspapers. We wanted to provide you with a safe space to write in about any troubles that you have as we recognise that university life can be difficult at times for everyone. This could range from worries about how the medical degree is impacting you to more personal concerns.

We’ll write you a response in a blog post format which we’ll try our best to make sure that it’s available to you within a fortnight.

All submissions are strictly anonymous so please feel free to write in!

Jump to…

Question 1

I’m really struggling to keep up with the content in the year 2 course. I procrastinate a lot and have found the content very boring this year (not a fan of anatomy or pharmacology). I’m also finding it difficult to structure my day as my sleep schedule is all over the place. Any advice on how to catch up/do work that I’m dreading? Thanks

Hi Procrastinator,

Firstly, I can completely understand where you are coming from as Year 2 is very content heavy and fast paced - almost everyone feels behind at some point and everything being online this year certainly doesn’t help. You are not alone in this and there is plenty of time to still catch up!

In terms of getting through difficult content, try and work with your peers! If you aren’t living with peers then you can watch the same lecture together over zoom, or everyone can do their own work whilst on a video call together - this can really help with staying engaged as you can motivate each other.

An equally as feasible method that I know some students use to keep motivated is to time lapse yourself studying - it helps you to keep going and is satisfying to watch afterwards!

In terms of going through content that you dislike, we have all been there and it can be very hard to keep engaged. An efficient way of going through this content and keeping engaged is to pause and test yourself continuously - active recall is an high yield study method (there are several youtube videos on this) and ensures that your learning is effective!

One of the best ways to get yourself to work is of course by eliminating distractions and the main culprit is often your phone / social media. I try to set limits (I use screen time on iphone) to make sure I am aware of how much time I am spending on my phone and then can set my limitations and start working.

When you do start working, make sure you have a designated study space and have turned off / put away all distractions. You can try using study music (there are some great playlists on youtube/spotify) to keep you focussed. In terms of actual work it is usually advised to start with the hardest content first, but if this makes it harder to engage with the content then you can perhaps alternate - do a topic you enjoy first and then something you don’t enjoy as much and so on. Unfortunately anatomy and pharmacology is a lot of just pure memorisation so I would specifically recommend using anki or even quizlet for these topics. A little bit of this everyday really helps to prevent you having to bulk revise something that you don’t particularly enjoy.

When I was completing year 2 anatomy I tried to keep myself engaged and further my understanding using Acland’s videos (https://aclandanatomy.com) and the Visible Body Human Anatomy Atlas (https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/library-ejournal/2017/12/22/ucl-now-has-access-to-visible-body-human-anatomy-atlas-2017/). The latter was really fun to use and gave me a 3D perspective into the learning which textbooks don’t provide.

During lockdown it is certainly much harder to structure your days as you are always at home and it is much easier to sleep in and then miss lectures and have to catch up. One thing I learnt from year 2 was not to rely on lecturecast, and to watch everything live as much as I could - this kept me engaged and ensured that work didn’t pile up too much. Therefore I would really recommend to try and wake up early and push yourself to get out of bed and watch lectures /work - once you do this a few times it becomes routine and you find yourself feeling a lot better and more motivated to keep up.

Please do remember not to overwork yourself and that it is okay to have rest days! It is important to look after your own well-being especially more so during lockdown, keeping fit (perhaps through home workouts, walks, yoga) will help you feel more energised and motivated. I often draw and try to meditate (the headspace app is great for mindfulness practise) to relax and this transcends into my work ethic as I have a more positive mindset. I am sure you can do the same with your own interests and build up a positive routine for the future!

I do hope this has helped and do not hesitate to reach out - you can use this platform again or even talk to an m4m peer navigator / medical student wellbeing if you’re finding anything particularly difficult or just want to have a chat!

Question 2

I just feel extremely unmotivated. I get distracted with lectures every minute. An hour long lecture ends up taking an entire day at the rate I’m going cause my attention span has just been so short. How do you stay motivated ?

Hi Tachycardia,

First of all, know that you're not alone! I know how isolating it can feel to be struggling with an online lecture, by yourself, when other students on whatsapp groups seem to be all caught up or even far ahead. But they don't reflect the full picture, or the entire cohort, and most importantly - everyone works differently, at different paces.

That brings me to the next point: try to understand how you work and study. You mentioned trying to stay motivated in order not to get distracted. Indeed motivation is very important, but even the most productive people do not stay 'motivated' all the time. Everyone has good days and bad days. Instead they have managed to maintain a set of good habits (a general routine) and a positive headspace (Not the same as motivation! This is not about being passionate about something, but ensuring you're in the right mindset/state of mind to make the best of your time), to keep themselves on track and keep the momentum going even when they meet a bad day.

I think the first step you can take is to identify the root cause of the issue. Try to see what you're distracted by, and what's in your mind as you pause your lecture video and do something else.

For me, it was a shortened attention span from social media consumption, causing me to keep going back onto social media which felt more comfortable to my brain, as well as stress and anxiety about the current state of affairs, a result of too much doomscrolling. I was constantly worried about my family, and whether things can return to normal, and that affected my ability to concentrate. Thus, I restricted my social media and news consumption (there are many ways of doing this, like blocking websites, or the Forest app. I simply shut down my phone entirely for a few hours) which helped a lot, and as for the anxiety, it was much easier to find ways to calm myself (talking to people, expressing myself through music) after I realised what I was feeling and why I was feeling that way. This is just my personal experience but yours might well be very different.

Don't forget that feeling tired can be a major reason. Fatigue plays a huge role in causing a lack of concentration and negative feelings, creating a negative mindset. If that is you, don't hesitate to take a good break to rest and recharge, away from your work (especially important now that the separation between our homes and schools are blurring: perhaps you may set a cut-off time e.g. 9pm to stop work for the day, or to do something more relaxing), preferably away from electronic devices too. It might seem defeatist or like procrastination, but you just have to remember to set a deadline for yourself to complete the work.

Also, a key point for online lectures: it might sometimes be better to just let the video run by itself instead of pausing. Even if you feel your attention slipping at points, don’t fret and just make sure you’ve got the key points down (it’ll be fine as that’s how it works for usual in-person lectures too!)

About staying motivated, a lot of the time, lack of motivation may be due to feeling (subconsciously or consciously) that work or study is unpleasant because it feels challenging and difficult. To tackle this psychological barrier, try to make things feel more manageable, more of a routine than an uphill battle, such as by making a (realistic) plan, splitting things into chunks, or rearranging the timetable to suit you (an advantage of remote learning!). Personally, I like occasionally changing the location of where I study, to make things feel less boring and simulate the feeling of going to class.

In general, instead of trying to 'get motivated', think about how to 'get ready' to do what you need to do! For me, that was a more straightforward way of thinking about it. I hope we've given you some options and ideas to explore and that it helps you. Do check out the book 'Why Motivation is a Myth' by Jeff Haden if you're interested (Ali Abdaal has a video about it on youtube), as I learnt a lot and picked up some of my main ideas from it.

Question 3

Sometimes I feel like I’m not good enough to be in medical school and I feel like I haven’t found where I fit in and my group of friends yet even though I’m almost through with second year

Hi Lonely Leslie,

The doubt that you have in your abilities to do well as a medical student is one that I and other peers have expressed before so you are not alone in feeling this way. It can be difficult to carry this burden by yourself so one way to tackle this is to share your feelings and how it’s been affecting you with a trusted someone. This might mean that they are from medical school, are past school friends or family members. I admit that it can be hard to be vulnerable to someone about your struggles but you have the strength and capacity to do so. The fact that you got into medical school already speaks volumes about these qualities.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of talking to someone about it yet, then just remember to be kind to yourself when you notice that these self-doubting thoughts are coming. You could question them by considering, “What steps or efforts did I take by myself to get here?” or by thinking about activities that you are confident in your ability to do. Having these small reminders of tasks that you have been able to do well by yourself can be useful in subduing this uncertainty you feel about your capability.

It can be disheartening to not have a group of friends that you feel settled with when you’ve been at uni for a while but due to the pandemic, you have not been able to fully utilise the usual opportunities of meeting people at societies or at lectures. I recognise that it’s been an incredibly challenging time to be able to make those close connections that we would like to. The fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you want to view it!) thing is that our degree is unusually long so you’ll still have time to make these cherished friends. For now, it might be an easier step to send a message to any friends or people that you have connected with during your time at medical school so far, just so that you can catch up with them. It can feel awkward to do so at times but usually those people would love to have a conversation with you.

Something that has worked well for me was to join one or two societies and make a commitment to attend regularly. By doing this, even through zoom, you’ll start to recognise people and people will recognise you and perhaps then you could even message or call them in your free time. Many wonderful societies have adapted well to COVID, so be sure to have a look and join a society that you feel you will genuinely enjoy. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment either, just being consistent in group chats or even just picking one person that you’d like to be friends with could work. Taking on a role of responsibility i.e. through societies or volunteering is also a great way to meet new people and form lasting relationships. My recommendation would be to try a few things out and go with whatever feels the most comfortable. You’ve got this!

Question 4

I am starting to feel pushed away by a friend. We have been close for a long time (flatmates before covid), now it's been replaced by whatsapp and the odd call. We always used to go out together or as part of a larger group but not since covid hit. They have invited me to parties but I've always declined, partly because as a medic I feel like I should be the one not breaking covid rules by meeting up. Before lockdown I suggested we meet up but they were snarky about it in a sort of 'so NOW you want to meet up' way. More recently I am increasingly finding myself being left on read or getting back one word answers. I feel hurt by this, I know I look like I can't loosen up and am being overly serious. I don't live with anyone who's at risk so that's not my excuse. This is a friendship I really value and I don't want to lose them, but I don't know what to do.

Hey, I’m really sorry about your situation, understandably everyone is finding it really tricky to stay safe whilst still being able to see friends during the pandemic (especially as otherwise it can become really isolating) and you are definitely not alone with your feelings. The most important thing is that you feel safe and comfortable, whether that be meeting up at a distance with your friend or staying at home and calling them up instead.

The main thing I would recommend is talking to your friend about your situation. Explain to them that you do not feel comfortable going to parties and breaking the rules - everyone has seen either first-hand or through the news how badly the virus has infected people so it is perfectly alright to feel frightened about being exposed to it, especially since everyone is affected in different ways - though you or your flatmates may not be ‘at risk’, you may still have more serious symptoms. I know it may be hard to grasp, but if your friend was truly loyal to you, and really cared for you, they would try to understand it from your perspective, and would support your choices. Even if you are worried about how they might respond, or are concerned about being judged, at least then you will know where you stand. Of course it is tough to realise that you may not be close to someone anymore, but being able to distinguish who is truly there for you is crucial, and you will meet so many more people in the future who will support you and your actions and will understand why you feel uncomfortable.

Being left on read is really upsetting and can leave you with a number of concerns and worries (don’t worry, you are not being overly serious at all). I find it hard myself to fully understand some texts, as they can be perceived in so many different ways - without seeing the face of the person writing them, who knows how they are actually feeling? One word answers could suggest that they do not care, or perhaps that they are really busy themselves and are struggling to deal with everything that is going on (sometimes people need their own space to think). I would instead encourage talking things through over the phone as it can often resolve many issues (and it does not give them a chance to ignore what you are saying).

Do not feel like you are alone with this. The pandemic has put a great strain on so many relationships and friendships and has caused everyone to really question their morals and judgement - we want to make sure that we are not cut off from the world by seeing friends and family but we also know the importance of remaining safe and not contributing to the spread of the virus.

Really hope that this has helped, please feel free to reach out again with any other concerns. 💛

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