We need more unstructured time for doctors

Time is our most valuable resource. It’s nonrenewable — once spent, you can’t get it back. We all understand this logically to varying degrees. But many of us feel the compulsion to manipulate time, to restructure it to fit our lifestyles. “Make the time,” is the common expression, as if we could create something out of nothing. You can’t. You can’t change the laws of nature and “make” time, no matter how talented you may be.

Since we can’t add more time to our day, we efficiently fill it as much as possible. Only we spend too much time with unfulfilling stuff, both of our own free will and from the will of others. We’ve mastered the art of busyness, a phenomenon that’s more of a problem, a problem of modern society. People nowadays don’t tolerate moments of stillness and quiet. Just look around: In a lull, they’re on their cell phones talking, texting, gaming, etc., all in the act of staying busy. Constant busyness may give us an air of importance, showing the outside world how valuable we are. It’s a natural ego-thing. We desire to be needed and wanted.

As for doctors, we’ve effectively crafted this art of busyness to near perfection. And we’re paying the price.

This saturation of time creates something unintended. Carefully consider what occupied your day and you’ll find that much of your time was spent on really unimportant stuff. And if our bodies aren’t occupied with something, our minds constantly are. We dwell on a hope or a fear for what might or might not be, preparing our minds preemptively. We’ve become too forward-minded. Doctors constantly keep a multitude of things on their minds — the welfare of their patients, their own family, finances, student loans, etc. We dwell too frequently on an unknowable future and far too infrequently reflect upon the positive results and pleasantries of the past. We aren’t content with the here-and-now. And the unintended consequences are worry, anxiety, and dread. It’s no wonder a large proportion of doctors suffer burn-out.

But it doesn’t stop with us as individuals. We unwittingly pass along this need to keep busy onto our offspring, involving them in every imaginable kind of activity — sports, play-dates, crafts, extracurricular activities, etc.— to fill every minute of every day. We fool ourselves into believing that no matter what the costs in time, talent or treasure, we mustn’t have the kids not busy.

We’ve become over-guarded with the kids, created out of a lingering sense of fear, fear they’ll encounter bad people or engage in activities that will turn them into bad people. This is natural, but we overcompensate; we involve them constantly with what we believe are positive activities in a highly protective environment that minimizes risk and maximally shields them from all the negatives out there. Don’t get me wrong — the world is a dangerous place. But it always has been. A sterilized environment of over-security can backfire. Either a sense of paranoia breeds or the kids become too complacent. Choose your poison.

What happened to “the good old days?”

When I was a grade-school kid, we were left to ourselves after school or during the entire summer, meaning our parents rarely structured an activity for us, leaving us to our own devices. “Playdate?” Are you kidding? That term didn’t exist. We had long periods of unstructured time. We were forced to be imaginative amongst ourselves, leading to some very creative endeavors.

What did we do as kids? Things not really all that extraordinary. We’d play touch football in the middle of the street, pausing at times as a car passed by. We’d play hide-in-seek using the entire street and houses on either side as hiding places. We’d have “Rock Wars,” throwing rocks at one another using those circular, metal trash-can lids as shields, just like the ancient Romans in the movies. We’d create a long “Polish Cannon” from tin cans and Dad’s butane lighter fluid as fuel to shoot a tennis ball well over a 100 yards out. We attempted to make napalm (I read in the dictionary this was gelatinized gasoline. As Mom wouldn’t part with her boxes of Jell-O dessert, we resorted to using wax from my candle-making kit, massaging gasoline into the warm, soft wax with our hands. It burned beautifully). When really blessed with a batch of gunpowder (harvested by unrolling loads of firecrackers), we tried to make a rocket engine but instead created a very loud explosive — an unintended result that was nevertheless very cool. The list is endless, with an assortment of wonderful activities of our own design, with and without the pyrotechnics.

Even during our “bored” moments, walking around kicking up dirt or lying on the grass staring at the clouds, we’d find ourselves in conversations bordering on the sublime. “Do you think God is watching us as we’re looking for him up there? How do thoughts start? What were you thinking about just before you were thinking what you’re thinking now? Your little brother put two worms in his mouth? I bet he can do three! We can use that napalm we made to build the first flying bike! We can fly and see God, or at least get away from your pesky little sisters!” And so on.

You may think I’m crazy and downright irresponsible, but this is all relative. As kids we learned important life-lessons that served us well as adults, I like to think. We learned to get along with people of different races, with different backgrounds and opinions. We learned to solve problems and take risks. Sure, we had our scrapes, cuts, and bruises. We’d argue and when we couldn’t agree, we’d run home to Mom or Dad. But Mom or Dad would point a finger the other direction: “Go back, deal with it!” And so we did. During the summer, we weren’t allowed back in the house until dinner time.

Our experiences, no matter how quirky or unconventional they may be, made us unique and independent, and collectively makes the world so fascinating.

Despite my unsavory background, I still became a doctor. Life is full of paradoxes and surprises. When I look at those days of my youth, one thing always strikes my mind: I was happy in the moment. Life was simple as a kid. We should take time to reminisce, for the past often is reflected more positively in our minds than the future. “Make the time” not only for this, but for doing nothing or doing something for the sake of being in the present, with no future-oriented goal, for no purpose other than being completely unstructured. Mindfulness, as we are now seeing, is the key to regaining control. Lie on the grass and gaze at the clouds and stars, better yet, with a child or two or more; they will re-educate you on the soul-cleansing joy of simplicity and endless possibility.

Randall S. Fong is an otolaryngologist and can be reached at his self-titled site, Randall S. Fong, as well as his blog.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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