Work-life balance begins in residency

A wise friend who had completed residency told me prior to my starting training that the key to having fun was “never sit down when you get home from work.”

Three years out of fellowship and practicing as a psychiatrist in Brooklyn, the words still resonate today.  The residents and medical students that rotate with me marvel at the stories of my full time acting career as a resident performing in multiple shows as a lead, having an improv team that toured, and lastly starring in a Bud Light commercial that filmed in Argentina!  They all ask, “How?!”

My answer still remains the simple advice my friend gave me eight years ago.

Going through training, we know as young doctors, we are not “out there” after work like friends in finance or law, and do not carry the same income compared to our peers.  I found residents making negative statements like, “being a resident is too hard” or “I am too busy” to go see friends and or have new experiences.

I refused to buy into that passive, negative mentality.  Through residency, I took multiple acting classes and improv classes.  I began auditioning for shows where rehearsals were at night or on weekends.   I made it work.  Residency became an incredible time in my life.  I developed and nurtured myself much more than simply going to work.  Even as an attending, that mantra has stuck.  I now produce documentary films and write books.

Now one may say, “Yeah, but that’s psychiatry.”

And this may be true, but enter my wife who was a medicine resident at that time.  Through the rest of her training (after we began dating end of second year), through fellowship, and now as assistant fellowship director for a cardiology program, she and I have shared numerous wonderful  experiences such as joining Lincoln Center’s Film Society, becoming marathon runners, and learned instruments.  She took on the attitude that even if home by seven, there’s a good four to five hours left in the night to go explore and diversify our life.  We even felt better at work.

I know it’s not easy.  Try not to succumb to the attitude that being a resident or junior attending has to be this grueling, negative experience where life just “shuts down.” Having those automatic negative thoughts will impact your mood and you will prophesize that life is miserable. These are some of the prime years of our lives.  Embrace them.  Focus energies on enhancing life outside of work.  Start small with dedicating time to the gym to assure healthy physical fitness, and then expand your horizons working to enculturate yourself a few times a month with other experiences.

Just as I teach kids in my practice tools to enhance executive functioning skills, you too will learn how to persevere through the difficult times.  You will be happier knowing that becoming a doctor is not an isolated, all-consuming experience.  Just remember, don’t sit down when you get home.

Johnny Lops is a psychiatrist and is the author of the upcoming book, Reinvent Yourself: Essential Tools From A Brooklyn Psychiatrist Who Has Seen It All.  He can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Johnny Lops.

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  • NewMexicoRam

    I had a better work/life balance during residency–in hindsight.

    Eat better, check. Exercise more, check. Meditate, uh, not so good.

    Work even more hours to do the insane meaningful use and quality measures that have very little to do with caring for patients, check.


    My work/life balance was fine during residency. Until I had a baby.

    It’s nice you could take classes and run marathons. But if I got home at 7 my baby would be asleep. Considering that I usually had to be I by 7 the next day, this means I wouldn’t see him until the next night. Put a few of these days together and you don’t see the baby for days at a time. Very difficult and emotionally draining, to feel like you are missing your child’s babyhood. I am glad I graduated when he was 6 months old and immediately went to part time. Made me so much happier.

    This is great advice if you are a young childless couple living in NYC but frankly kind of eye rolling if you are not. If you have kids and live out in the suburbs (ie have a house to care for, can’t get great cheap takeout every night, etc) then it rings kind of false. I spent every moment I had out of work with my family.

  • guest

    The traditional expectation of a doctor during residency training is that he or she should be seeing patients during the day, and then using a fair amount of their free time at night studying on their own about what they have done and seen at the hospital that day. Actually in order to be good at what you do, this is pretty much what needs to be done, allowing of course a reasonable amount of time for sleep and personal rejuvenation..

    I am not sure that I would be excited to receive treatment from a doctor who spent his free time during residency frenetically pursuing a second career in an unrelated field rather than improving the depth of his knowledge base about his medical specialty.

    Just my two cents.

  • guest

    Yes, the residents I supervise appear to have a pretty nice quality of life, although I would look askance at any of them pursuing theatrical careers on the side. Most of them can’t even handle moonlighting on a regular basis without it impacting their ability to do basic things like passing Step 3, staying awake during rounds, etc.

  • Nancy

    What I liked about this article is the clear message: do not put your life on hold because you are on medicine. Nurture yourself. Develop healthy habits. Needless to say accomplishing this self care will look very different than the author’s experience and suggestions.

  • Fiona Craig

    I created my own work-life balance by starting a business. I spent years studying and making small sacrifices so that I could be there for my son but now he’s off to high school next year and already I can see a shift in my parental duties. I can now focus on my business and even take the occasional client Skype call at night. Whilst some would disagree with this blog given they have very young children, trust me you won’t have to wait too long.

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