4 Ways to Boost Your Discipline when preparing for medical exams

We all know that discipline is important in all aspects of life, but how do you improve discipline when it comes to preparing for medical exams? This blog breaks down 4 simple strategies to boost your preparation and ultimately chances of passing. 

Unfortunately discipline is not something you possess from birth – it has to be practised and imbibed religiously over time. Whilst we are likely already disciplined in certain areas of our lives, how do we improve in areas that we often miss out on – including exam preparation? How can we transfer this discipline from one area to another? 

These 4 things will help: scheduling, being accountable, having reward systems and thinking forward. Let’s break these four things down to see how they work.

1) Scheduling

Scheduling is a powerful tool that can easily boost your discipline. Knowing that you have scheduled something for a specific time, automatically keeps you disciplined to do it at that very moment. 

For example if you decide that 8-9pm will be your revision time every day, make sure you set an alarm for it or write it down in a diary. This will automatically train your mind to sit down to study at that time – naturally you will build up the discipline to follow this timing on a regular basis. Scheduling works like a trigger and designs your brain to function in a specified manner.

Scheduling works more powerfully if you do it with regularity. Eventually you will not need to worry about your revision until it is 8pm, allowing you to focus more when it is time. When 8pm comes around, your brain will start to remind you. 

Whilst a regular fixed schedule is best, of course there will be circumstances where you cannot sit down at the same time every day. In this instance wake up and designate a revision window for that day – and make sure you fix the times before you start your day. You can even schedule it the night before (probably better as your brain will sleep on it and start to prepare subconsciously overnight). 

You have all the discipline you need within you – channelling it through regularity and scheduling is a great way to bring it out.

2) Rewards

We all know that rewards are great motivators. Having something to reward yourself at the end of your study session will always keep you more motivated and ultimately disciplined. It helps you break through that barrier of laziness and also helps you indulge in some self-love.

Often when we sit down to start, we feel motivated. Discipline however can often reduce significantly halfway down the line, as your mind starts to falter and the concentration breaks. The reward that you set for yourself at the beginning however (whether a regular one or a new one for each session), in the end will draw you back.

Say you love chocolate cookies. Promise yourself to your favourite chocolate cookie after you complete a certain number of chapters or questions. The reward can be going out for dinner, catching up with friends, or watching a movie – it doesn’t really matter except that it matters to you. Every time you lose concentration, remind yourself of the reward. 

Many times it is tempting to give ourselves the reward first and then sit down to work – “I’ll watch the movie and then do some work”. This often backfires. If you reward yourself before you complete a task, you have no motivation left to work when it gets tough and discipline soon falters. 

Remember, work first, then reward. 

3) Think Forward

Unlike rewards, thinking forward is a long-term process where you think ‘two positive, two negative’. 

If you’re preparing for an exam, think of two positive implications of passing, as well as two negative ones. Positive implications can be things like getting into a particular training programme or getting a step closer to your dream job – essentially anything positive that you know will happen if you pass the exam in a few months.

Whenever your discipline starts to falter, re-focus on your two long-term reasons to pass – the two things that give you immense benefit in the future. We all have times when you sit in the middle of a three-hour revision session and get bored – mainly because you start to look for short-term benefits like grabbing a coffee or talking to someone. But thinking of your long-term benefits may draw you back to focus.

In addition to ‘two positive’, try to have ‘two negative’ as well. Think of two clear negative implications – if I don’t pass I will not progress in training or I might lose out on a good job opportunity. A few negative implications will keep you reminded of what you might lose if you do not work hard today. You are human – even with the best intentions, your two positives are not always strong enough.

4) Accountability

Finally we come to accountability. Being accountable only to yourself can of course work, but being accountable to someone else adds the fear of being answerable or letting the other person down. 

Try making yourself accountable to a third person – perhaps a friend or colleague. This is a strong reason why study groups are extremely important. When you prepare with someone, you naturally set targets and eventually make sure that you are both on the same page. When you see someone else doing a lot in a set time period, you’re automatically motivated to do the same. 

You can be accountable to a relative or even your spouse. Plan to complete a set number of chapters or questions by the end of the day, and then tell them your plan. Tell them to ask you a few questions on the chapters you studied later that evening – you’ll likely want to make sure you’re right slightly more than if the questions weren’t coming!  

At times even your consultant or supervisor are ideal choices for accountability, as they’re likely to already have an idea of the exam and will hopefully drag you along until you’re fully prepared. Having the support (and sometimes pressure) of a senior colleague – in particular when you have told them of your plan – can push that extra discipline level to great effect.

In summary

  1. Prioritise setting up a schedule (preferably a recurring one)
  2. Set short and long term rewards
  3. Think of ‘2 positive, 2 negative’
  4. Become accountable to others

Discipline is something that we all have. Sometimes however we can feel that others have more discipline than we do. We all have that discipline in us but need to learn how to develop and then channel it well. 

Discipline is a habit. Strategies such as scheduling on a regular basis, having small rewards for yourself, setting both positive and negative implications, and lastly being accountable to someone else other than yourself can massively improve your ability to create the habit. Once it becomes a habit, it can lead to amazing results with your exam preparation. 

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Dr Aman Arora is a GP who is now 100% committed to transforming medical education, helping doctors across the globe to ace their exams and enhance their careers. He is proud to hold FRCGP (Fellow of Royal College of General Practitioners). Previous roles include:

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Dr Pooja Arora is a GP with a background in Medical Politics, passionately focusing on improving the opportunities and working conditions for junior doctors. Previous roles include:

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* Blogs written by Dr Aman and Dr Pooja Arora are not for professional, financial or medical advice. Please seek appropriate professional, legal or financial advice where appropriate *

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