Productivity Tools



For Medical Students & Professionals

Productivity has been on my mind a lot lately. I make a lot of references to STEP 1 on my Instagram, and I want to provide some background on the test before discussing why I’ve chosen to write a blog on productivity tools.

STEP 1 is the first of several examinations required to obtain licensing as a Medical Doctor (M.D.) in the United States. STEP 1 focuses on testing whether students understanding the foundational sciences needed to practice medicine, and is arguably the most challenging of the four licensing examinations (STEP 1, STEP 2 CS, STEP 2 CK, STEP 3).

Studying for STEP 1 is extremely daunting because it requires a streamlined review of everything you have learned during your first two years of medical school. If there’s one thing that I have learned during my first two years of medical school, it’s that there is an infinite amount of medical knowledge and it is entirely too easy to get lost in the details. Allocating your time appropriately and avoiding getting caught in the weeds are absolute essentials for success.

This blog discusses the productivity tools that I use to streamline my life and my studying. The tools I discuss below are not specific to medicine or medical school and can be used across fields to improve organization, focus, and effectiveness.


Mindfulness and meditation have reached the mainstream, and rightfully so. Mindfulness can improve mood, reduce stress, and increase attention and focus. I try to start the day with a 3 - 5-minute meditation. I also try to take 60 seconds to meditate when I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious.

I use Apple’s Breathe application which provides real-time guidance through breathing exercise. The Breathe app also sends push notifications reminding me to take time to breathe every day. I can track my mindful minutes on both my Apple Watch and my iPhone. For novice meditators and individuals who aspire to mindfulness but just never seem to fit it in, I highly recommend the Breathe app. I have also used and recommend Headspace (PAID) and Insight Timer (FREE).

Managing Events & Reminders:

I use all Apple products (MacBook, iPhone, Apple Watch, etc.) and most frequently track my calendar on my Apple Watch or phone so, I prefer to use Apple iCal/Calendar to unify my calendar across all devices.

I like that iCal gives me the option to add events into separate calendars and color-code them. At a glance, this gives me the ability to see what I have on deck for both school and my personal life. I’m also able to share my calendar with Alex (with notifications turned off so he doesn’t get blasted every time I change an event) so that he can see my schedule each day, and keep track of when my tests are so he can avoid me. MacWorld has a great blog on tips and tricks to maximize iCal.

I hope this list has been helpful to you! I’d love to hear your experience with any of these apps as well as recommendations on productivity tools you use to streamline your life in the comments below!

Managing Time & Focus

The Pomodoro Method is a time management method that minimizes internal and external interruptions and allows for flow (AKA “being in the zone). The Pomodoro Method breaks down work periods into 25-minute intervals separated by 5-minute breaks. Every fourth work interval, you can take a longer break (standardly 15 minutes, however sometimes I take longer). I embraced this method when I started medical school and began studying for several hours, every single day. I use an online Pomodoro timer (Marinara Timer) that automatically tracks these intervals for me.

As someone who is constantly on social media and/or responding to emails, it’s often hard to pull myself away from my phone. I’ve been known to “go dark” or put my phone on airplane mode when I really need to get a lot done in a short period of time. However, for everyday life, I wanted an app that challenged me to spend time offline, but didn’t block my calls (in case of an emergency) and wasn’t punitive if I got sucked into a digital wormhole. Flipd is a “Digital Wellness” application that encourages you to mindfully spend time away from your phone. What I appreciate about Flipd is that if you access your phone during your Flipd, and get sucked down an Instagram rabbit hole, it will send you a push notification gently reminding you that you have been distracted. You can set your timer to 60 minutes, 180 minutes, or another amount of time based on your needs. You can also take breaks during these intervals, with gentle reminders to return to the app/your work in 5 - 15 minutes.

To-Do List & Tasks

Outside of classes and meetings, I’m not really one to micro-manage my own day by scheduling specific tasks each hour. I’m really in tune with my own emotionality and energy levels, and sometimes this changes daily. I’m all about using my time effectively, and sometimes my oscillating energy means that the task I intended to do at 6PM might be better done during my 3PM slump.

For several years I had been using the Stickies widget on my computer to keep a running list of tasks I want to accomplish that day. I review this list through the day and try to tackle each task one-by-one. After getting caught out several times with dead computer but notes to study and/or study apps to use on my phone, I decided to switch to a to-do list that would communicate across my devices.

Enter Google Keep. Guys. I am obsessed with Google Keep. You can set your usual to-do lists, schedule reminders, add checkboxes - all the standard to-do list features. But, you can also color-code, label, and separate your notes into different categories, reorganize them, easily wipe them for reuse, and archive them. This has been a godsend for keeping my blog and schoolwork afloat so far this semester.

I also use ToDoIst to keep an ongoing grocery list with Alex. We can update this list both manually and from our Alexa (which is in our kitchen), and I like that it’s in a neutral territory (away from our individual scary to-do lists) for us both to contribute to.

Managing my Reading List

Alex turned me on to the Pocket App as a means for saving articles for later review. I had previously been using my Safari reading list, which frankly I never go back to review unless I put clothing on there that I want to buy. I like to listen to podcasts and audiobooks during my commute, and Pocket has a feature that allows the application to read you the article as your commute. WIN-NING. Highly recommend this application, if you’re like me and run across a lot of articles you should be reading (news updates, medical legislation, OpEds, etc.), but always forget to re-access them.

I hope this list has been helpful to you! I’d love to hear your experience with any of these apps as well as recommendations on productivity tools you use to streamline your life in the comments below!


One Hangry Millennial

Catherine Smith1 Comment