Pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist, woman, mother, wife, friend, mentor. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to “work smarter, not harder” to get it all done and feel good about myself, only to begin climbing the mountain with a fresh list the next day. My goals were simple: peace of mind and a sense that I was in control of my life and doing a good job for all the people who needed me. Just a little more effort, better organization, and I would be there.
As a physician coach, I find that the topic of work-life integration is always at or near the top of the list of issues for clients. Reading Oliver Burkeman’s excellent book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals made me do some critical thinking. Although we act as if time is a commodity, it has no tangible essence. It can’t be owned. And though we constantly behave as if it’s unlimited, we know better, especially as physicians. All we really have is the present moment. What is it we’re really trying to manage? And, equally importantly, what sense of failure do we inflict on ourselves with our continuing unsuccessful attempts to fit more than 24 hours of activities into each day?
Allocating our daily time is not a management game or a puzzle with a perfect solution and a prize for the winner. To paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver, this is our one wild and precious life. It’s time to reclaim it and regain some calm, and even joy, in our everyday lives.
1. Each day is allowed no more than three priorities or critical tasks. Each day gets 3 top priorities or critical tasks to accomplish. No more. Once my critical tasks are done, I can call it a successful day, and it can only get better. Seeing the important items ticked off my list by the end of the day and the week gives me immense satisfaction. I know I’ve made forward progress on the things that mattered most to me.
2. It takes as long as it takes. How many times have I experienced frustration when something didn’t go the way I planned – usually because it was going to take more time than I’d allotted for it? To me, for years, the ultimate crime was anything that wasted my time and delayed me from finishing another task. It was a recipe for near-constant disappointment. Technology issue? My head would explode. New approach: it takes as long as it takes. If it needs to be done, it is a priority for that day, and it takes the time that it takes. And I can settle down and enjoy that process, whatever it brings.
3. Some things are just going to have to be good enough. Corollary to #1 and #2: for things that aren’t today’s priorities or critical tasks, good enough needs to be good enough. My life isn’t long enough to allow me to be a perfectionist in everything I do. I need to choose my priorities and identify tasks where I can let go of perfection and settle for good enough. I can delegate more and worry less. It should be one of tomorrow’s critical tasks if it needs that much attention.
4. If it doesn’t contribute to my mission and vision, should I be doing it? There are plenty of things in life we don’t have choices about, and this is not about those things. This is about the things that we continually say “yes” to, even as we have a sinking feeling that we don’t really want to do them or will regret the time we’ve committed. Reflecting on your values and what has meaning for you helps identify the projects that you’ll be glad to be a part of despite the time obligations. Be courageous – gracefully say “no” to something! I promise it won’t be the end of your career, and you’re going to feel deeply satisfied with not adding something else to your list of duties. Maybe your “no” will create an opportunity for a colleague.
5. Limit things that distract you or sap your energy. For me, this is email and social media. Set parameters that feel right for you. Climb out of the rabbit holes and reclaim some time!
6. Lastly, remember to keep yourself on your list. Block time for yourself, even if it’s only fifteen minutes. Time to exercise, read, or just sit and think. Time that belongs to you. You matter, and this is your life too. Be willing to ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” and listen to the answer for your own well-being.
Balancing our lives can feel like a Herculean struggle, but Burkeman is absolutely right: We only get about 4,000 weeks on average. It’s not much time, but accepting that can be liberating. Get those critical tasks done, and enjoy your day!
Laura Berenstain is a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist and physician coach.
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