Making Lemonade: How to Make the Most Out of a Long Commute
It's difficult to see the good in a 3-hour round trip to med school or a clinical placement, but as one medical student shows us there's a lot to gain in the space between home and work.
Out of the window, the sun spilt over the horizon in shades of deep orange and overtones of pink. My petrol station bought sunglasses dimmed the scene just enough so that I could hold my view directly at the sunrise for a couple of moments before having to avert my gaze. The rhythmic clicking and clacking of the train’s wheels rolling over the tracks was the only audible sound. There was no chatter, everyone in the carriage was attempting to catch up on sleep or engrossed in the latest happenings on their phones. A veteran of the sunrise train journey myself, I sunk a little deeper into my seat, and let the gentle rocking motion of the train lull me to sleep.
I had a long haul ahead of me. The commute from my home to the hospital where I was placed was a three hour round trip, but I knew I could safely sleep for this leg of the journey. I’d done it enough times to condition myself to wake up precisely as the train arrived at the interchange in the city. This was the second of the four legs of the daily journey, which involved a bus, two trains and a walk. All up it was about 40 kilometres. I’d spend three hours a day travelling, for a total of 15 hours a week.
I recalled how, after the glee of receiving admission into medical school had settled, I began to contemplate the reality of commuting to my university and later placement at hospitals. They lay a long way on the other side of the city. Like many, the financial restrictions of student life made moving to a more convenient location impossible, and family commitments made such a move undesirable. So, I had to buck up and saddle up for 15 hours a week of travel. I know a lot of my colleagues find themselves in a similar situation, many of whom would find a one-and-a-half-hour commute veritably brief. I’ve heard stories of people traversing tremendous daily distances to study and practice the art of medicine.
After a period of lamenting how tiresome, inconvenient, and arduous such a commitment may be, I think I landed at the conclusion that perhaps there lurks an opportunity in disguise. Maybe multiple hours of uninterrupted, undistracted solitude every day can be repurposed into something greater. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.
I started out my campaign to refashion my commuting time into something more rewarding by going down the route of productivity. Many of us gravitate towards this ingratiation of our Type-A streak, and many attempts at productivity were made over the course of the thousands of hours I have spent travelling.
Train Conductive Study Tips
Cracking the spine of a textbook while on a train, especially while standing, was far too ambitious for me. Even with an electronic copy, this sort of high-level reading tends to demand more of me than I could sustainably commit to for hours on end each day. I found it best to keep my medical reading light and revisional, sticking to notes and summaries I had penned earlier while reading or watching lectures. They were easier to digest and didn’t overwork me to the point of mental exhaustion that would be to the detriment of what I had to do upon arrival at the hospital or university.
Interactive resources such as Anki were helpful to this end as well. The “flash-card” format helped me with engagement, and the functionality of progress tracking and reward systems allowed for fuss free and cumulative progress across time, where other formats of study tended to slow and falter, especially in the context of public transport.
Auditory materials also achieved this. Resources such as Drivetime Radio allowed me to zero in on specific topics and consume them in a passive yet memorable way, while numerous podcasts engaged me in many areas of the field.
I quickly learnt not to write-off social media as purely recreational. There are many pages, publications and websites that serve the purpose of medical education. Maybe you’re reading this on your phone en route to a place of medical study right now? My medical school had interest societies that shared information pertinent to their field that could be casually consumed while commuting. There was the Women's Health Interest Society of Monash, the Monash University Paediatric Promotion, Interest & Training Society, and the Monash University Surgical Interest Group just to name a few. Casually perusing health news also served me well, especially in these times of an international health crisis.
Embracing the time out to recharge
But periodically, the general grind of study, work and social demands required me to repurpose this time in the pursuit of self-care. The life of the medical student, rewarding and meaningful as it may be, can become stressful and overwhelming. This commute became a time for me to practice the art of mindfulness, relaxation and sleep. Sometimes it was difficult for me to slow my mind and focus on these things, as the delays and cancellations that Melbourne’s Metro trains network are famous for added to the stress of the day.
But I eventually learnt that catching public transport was about relinquishing control, sinking into your seat, if you're lucky enough to get one, and watching the scenery roll past. Making the most of this time didn’t necessarily mean attempting to jam more study in, the ordering of my thoughts and contemplation of to do lists and schedules was always a priority. Even though I may have been seemingly idle, the gears of my mind continued to turn. Sometimes, even a modicum of sleep was the most valuable thing to me, and so I took all that I could get. On these days, I wish only for a longer train ride to rest.
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