The Productivity Trap


There is a pervasive myth among med students: the idea that suffering enough now will make us successful and lead to future happiness. The only problem is that “future happiness” is a moving target.

The highest achieving people I have ever met–the ones with truly amazing stories–follow a different paradigm. For them, current happiness is foundational for meaningful work, which ultimately leads to “success”.

Myth: Productivity–> Success–> Happiness
Truth: Happiness–> Meaningful Work–> “Success”

Becoming a physician is obviously an exercise in delayed gratification, but we turn a virtue into a curse when we acquiesce to misery as the status quo. An unfortunate reality is that med students are very susceptible to substance abuse, mostly because of extended neglect for our own well-being. When we sacrifice our fitness, our sleep, our relationships, and our sense of control, it is no wonder that so many resort to using uppers to get through the day and downers to sleep at night.

The most common form of self-immolation in med school is taking on side projects that cut into your limited time for self-care. To avoid this “productivity trap”, I use exam week to purge my calendar of low-yield obligations. The singular focus of this week is a good lens through which to reexamine your priorities and eliminate any activities that don’t contribute to your overall well-being. Once you get good at that, start eliminating activities that contribute something, but not as much as other activities that you could redirect your focus toward. Use the same critical eye to decide into which relationships to invest time and energy. Deliberately under-schedule yourself until you feel like you can truly take a deep breath without inhaling water.

Nobody said med school would be easy, but why make it harder on ourselves than it already is?

3 responses to “The Productivity Trap

  1. I love your insight, Aaron. Those of us in the health care profession already can benefit from your wisdom. After all, you can’t take care of someone else if you aren’t taking care of yourself first.


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