Physicians are overwhelmed and burned out. We have an epidemic of “too busy.” Many of us think we could get so much more accomplished if we had more time. Why aren’t we taking the time? Doctors need to start taking growth days. These aren’t sick days, mental health days or vacation days. Growth days are days strategically taken during the month that are specifically meant for personal growth. This could mean thought work, reading, exercising, connecting with ourselves, and connecting with other people. It is time off during the week to stop the treadmill of patients and obligations.
“Too busy” is a form of buffering. If we stay busy enough, we don’t have to face the truth of our life. It’s a way to be numb similar to binging food or drinking alcohol. Being busy covers up how we may feel lonely, isolated, disengaged, and feeling empty. But you wouldn’t know by looking at us because we’re spinning around looking ever so busy. We’re unapproachable. We’re disconnected. We’ve created a “too busy” armor around us. If we are “too busy,” we are reacting and putting out fires. We remain perpetually in a defensive position.
With time to reflect, we move from a defensive position and into an abundant space. We can remind ourselves of our achievements. This is the armor against the challenges in the world. Showing gratitude for ourselves and those around us. We can take the time to ask ourselves critical questions like the following:
How is the job going?
Am I satisfied?
How can I be more efficient?
How can I find ways to get others to help me?
What can I let go?
There will likely be immediate resistance to the idea of taking time off for ourselves. “They” won’t let me, and “they” could be administration, patients, staff, family. But I won’t get the wRVUs, the cases, my surgical skills will erode, I will let my patients down, I have so much to do …the list goes on.
Scarcity keeps us stuck on the treadmill. Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, describes the properties of scarcity as shame, comparison, and disengagement. Only when we feel that sense of “enough” will we embrace a sense of worthiness, boundaries, and engagement. By believing that we are worthy of taking time for ourselves, we will continue developing these characteristics that will lead us to be more resilient to burnout. Taking time for ourselves is not only helpful for productivity, it’s necessary. These days fortify us against the bad ones.
Pausing to stop can be overwhelming. First, let all expectations go, especially when you are first starting. This is not another source of stress or pressure. Go for a walk. Or the gym for three hours. Shop. Swim. Reflect. Read a book. Take yourself on a date- do everything that would give yourself some time to pause and reflect. This could be at work but on your own terms. Initial growth days should be pausing and writing everything that comes into your brain. Most of us don’t even know what our thoughts are, because we are not paying attention. Once we start listening, then we can start changing our thoughts. We can allow ourselves to be supportive, provide unconditional love, acknowledging what we’ve done, and cheering ourselves on to get better.
We can move from being a reactor to creator. Creators think of the future and make it start happening today. Reactors are just dealing with the crisis at hand, not progressing, feeling stuck, feeling like life is unfair. Reactors are people-pleasing, reacting to everything said, constantly worrying about how to win the approval of others. That’s the trouble with people-pleasing: You are always reacting. We think we are making others happy, but we despise ourselves and resent others. We should start taking the time to please ourselves. It is only from this space that we can start helping others.
If you think this will be a waste, or you can’t take a break because there is work to do, your brain will find ways to prove this thought true. If you tell yourself this is stupid and a waste of time, then you will squander the day and prove yourself right. If you tell yourself they can’t live without out you (and your confidence depends on them wanting you), you will allow the interruptions. If you find yourself saying you really can’t take the time off, then you have a non-sustainable job.
Give yourself permission. Start to develop strong boundaries. Understanding what we can and cannot do in a day. Setting aside days for us to reflect, listen deeply to our inner thoughts, and strategize the path we are meant to live are keys to a successful life. If we’re too busy and never take time to stop, we will never see the path in front of us.
Amy Vertrees is a general surgeon and founder, BOSS Business of Surgery Series.
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