Study Tips

Tools for Productivity in Medical School and Beyond: Part 1

Abe Baker
Published on Oct 16, 2020. Updated on Oct 20, 2020.

Medical school is daunting, and life has a way of not making it easier with never-ending distractions -Social media, events, friends, and family. In today’s blog, Osmosis Medical Education Fellow Abe Baker shares all the digital tools that he uses to ensure he is productive and efficient during the day as a fourth-year medical student.

Tools for creating and tracking projects

Let’s face it! We have a life outside of medical school. Some of us are working on research projects, have a part-time hustle, or are improving our hobbies. We can make sure to stay sane by using digital apps to help us keep track of our day-to-day projects. Here are some I use:

Calendar – Google Calendar:

You probably use a shared online calendar with your school.  However, you can create calendars for planning purposes; for example, I have a personal calendar that acts as a “draft” for things I might do or need scheduling. Another calendar I share with my family so we can coordinate our schedules outside classes.  Tip: Repeated events help save time for daily habits like exercise.!


Kanban is a term derived from Japanese for “billboard” that describes a type of project management software that has become quite popular in organizations, but you can use it for your tasks and projects.  

    • A Kanban board shows a list of tasks or steps of a big project in several columns, where each column is a different phase of the project, such as “to-do,” “doing”, and “done.”  As you progress on each task, you move it from left to right until it reaches “done”; this shows you how much work is left and it is satisfying to move something into the “done” pile. 

    • I use Trello for my clerkship boards, student organizations I’m involved in, personal projects, and things to do for school.  Osmosis even uses Trello to organize our Osmosis Med Ed Fellowship program!

Personal habits – Habitica

If moving things from one column to another isn’t all that fun, and you need more motivation, that’s where something like Habitica could be useful.  It turns your life into a role-playing game where you “earn gold” and “level up” for completing tasks and doing positive habits, but lose “health points” if you continue bad habits.  There is also support for group “quests” where your productivity helps defeat a “boss.” 

I used this throughout undergrad for a few years, and the thing I liked the most about it was that it created a sense of accountability. If I didn’t do my work, it would not only damage my character but also deal “boss damage” to the rest of my Habitica party!  I eventually lost interest in Habitica itself but used the same accountability system via email with my family and classmates during Step 1 dedicated to ensure I stuck to my goals.

To-do lists – Google Keep: 

Basically digital sticky notes, useful for grocery lists and keeping quick references readily available on your phone (think H’s & T’s of resuscitation, GCS scores, etc.).  It also can be used as a reminder system with recurring notes.

Analog: Bullet Journal:   

Despite most students using laptops and tablets in class, on the wards you’ll most likely be using a clipboard and paper to take notes when talking with patients and presenting to your house-staff. 

How to use:  I use the bullet journal rapid-logging system to make notes to myself throughout the shift on what things still need to be done and what lists I need to move into a to-do. The “bullet” comes from the dot symbol * used to mark a to-do entry.  When it’s done, just cross it off with an X.  If you’re not done but moving the task to another list, put a > on it, if you’re not going to do it, cross it out.   

For example, I might write something like “* check CBC results at 08:00” on the patient list, but in the margin, I might also write “* write rough-draft for that post idea (OMEF),” where the bit at the end reminds me what to-do list to put it in once rounds end.  If something is critical, I put a square around the dot, so it stands out.  At the end of the shift, I check to make sure all my tasks are done or migrated to a more permanent list before shredding the day’s notes.

Tools for time management

Setting goals and keeping track of projects is critical for getting anything done, but they don’t do much if you don’t have any time for those projects!  Often we are aware of what is eating up our time (usually social media, memes, movies, and video games). Still, it can be hard to change habits without quantifiable data—enter time logging apps:

Manual time tracking – aTimeLogger2

This is the app I have been using for the last five years to keep track of how long things take; there was a bit of a learning curve at first, but now it feels like second-nature to change activities every time I switch to a new task.  

Using this data, I can compare how productive I am from week to week and make changes based on the results (very much like a Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle).  The only downside of this app compared to others is the need to start and stop each activity manually, but I prefer that level of control as it is more accurate.

Automatic time tracking – RescueTime

Many of the “time-wasters” in our lives are digital; a straightforward approach to becoming efficient is to measure time spent on your computer and phone.  RescueTime automatically scans apps and websites as you use your devices throughout the day and then creates a report of how much time was spent per type of activity (from work and education to internet and games).

In general, the app is secure and safe to use, but it may not meet all HIPAA guidelines. Rescue Time isn’t 100% automatic since it has to be “taught” that some apps (e.g., UWorld) are for education, and some sites are a mix of both (e.g., YouTube).  

Tools for focusing  

Half the battle is knowing how much time you spend unproductively; to be productive changes have to be made, and some apps can help make it easier to stay focused on what you set out to do.

Pomodoro timerForest:  

The Pomodoro technique is a work schedule of 25 minutes on a productive task with a 5-minute break, with the cycle repeated throughout the day.  Forest is a variation on that idea, where you set a length of time to work when you commit to not using time-wasting apps on your phone.  

While you work, a virtual tree grows from a seedling to a full-size tree, but it “dies” if you stop working and use another app!  At the end of a long day of studying, there (hopefully) will be a small forest of trees you’ve grown with your work.

I used Forest during my Step 1 dedicated study period to keep myself focused during those long 40 UWorld question block reviews. I also used the friends function to do this with a classmate; we competed to see who could grow the biggest forest each week by studying longer and more consistently.  I’ve also been using it to help keep me on track as I write this post :)

Time-wasting site blocker – LeechBlock browser addon: 

Social media site designers want to keep users scrolling for as long as possible. Even if you set yourself a limit of 5 minutes to surf the web, it can be almost impossible to stop yourself if the next post looks interesting. 

LeechBlock is a browser add-on within Firefox that will cut-off access to sites you list as distracting after a set amount of time has passed.  Still, this won’t replace self-control entirely since you can override the block or just uninstall the addon.

Do Not Disturb mode on phones:  

The easiest distractions to avoid are ones you don’t know about in the first place.  Minimize browser windows if you don’t need them open, and use the Do Not Disturb (aka Priority mode) notification settings on your phone to stop getting notifications.  

Without this, I would likely get a ding on my phone every couple of minutes and wouldn’t focus at all!  This is different than a “total silence” mode when something important does come up, for example, I have not blocked phone calls, and I have Gmail set up to send email notifications from family members through.


About Abe

Abe Baker is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Illinois Chicago-Rockford College of Medicine campus. He is interested in Internal Medicine but still enjoys learning from every specialty. Abe enjoys teaching in his roles as a Peer Educator and as an Osmosis Medical Education Regional Lead. He is also a Wikipedian; you can find him here. Thanks to his multitasking skills, Abe manages to find time to play violin and viola as well as do long-distance and trail running.

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