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The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP 53: The Key to Physician Work-Life Balance

Editor’s Note: This is the last time for the year (it only opens 3 times per year) that the Alpha Coaching Experience is open for enrollment.  So, if you want to learn how to master your money and your mindset so that you can finally practice medicine on your terms, make sure to check it out. Enrollment closes on Wednesday, September 1st (9/1/21). Click here to learn more about ACE.

Larry Keller

 One of the most common struggles that I hear from physician coaching clients in the Alpha Coaching Experience is that they don’t have enough time.  They are overwhelmed by all of the tasks that need to get done.  We are all balancing so many balls in the air.  Whether that be as a friend or family member. A spouse or a parent. Or a teacher, physician, or researcher.  There are so many things that stake a claim for our time.  This is why work-life balance as a physician often seems like a far-fetched dream.

 In fact, A lack of time is such an important concept, that it was one of the first topics we covered on this podcast when we talked about the A Priori planning we teach our clients in ACE.  If you want to learn more about that, make sure to check out Episode 7 of The Physician Philosopher podcast called “How to stop feeling overwhelmed”.

 Unfortunately, the first several things that go by the wayside when we run out of time are often some of the most important priorities in the long-term, big-picture view of life. Things like self-care, sleep, and exercise. Prayer and meditation.  Or making time for our family and friends.  

 That is why in this post we are going to talk all about how you can either learn how to master your schedule or your schedule will become the master of you.  Your view on time can either produce massive problems or it can produce great confidence and results.  

A Lack of Work-Life Balance

Before we dive into how to fix the problem of work-life imbalance, we should probably properly define it first.  In fact, even this phrase has come under fire in the last couple of years as people prefer the term “life-life balance” as it implies what we already know… that our professional jobs are a part of our life.  It isn’t one versus the other.  It is about finding harmony in it all.

 Yet, many doctors don’t feel like there is enough time to do what they need to get done.  They will use this line of thinking for why they don’t get 8 hours of sleep, exercise 2-3 times per week, call their friends and family members, or invest in the education or coaching they need to sort it all out.

 In fact, not having enough time is one of the top reasons that people give me for not getting the coaching that they feel they need.  It might even be number 1. They’ll often say things like “It sounds like coaching would be really helpful, but I just don’t have enough time for that.”

 

Are You Really Running Out of Time?

 

This is a thought reversal, Suzanne → use this for social media + ads→ One of the biggest misconceptions that most doctors have is thinking that there is not enough time in the day to get everything done.

 And I get it. If you are a respected doctor, there is enormous pressure from your job to have your charting and paperwork done on time, to take good care of patients, sit on this committee or that committee, and somehow you’re supposed to keep your relationships intact, too.  So it’s an easy trap to fall into thinking you don’t have enough time to get everything done.

 But let me ask you. Are the doctors who are able to “do it all” magically creating extra hours in the day?  Do they get more than the 24 hours the rest of us get?

 No. 

 And if you keep holding onto the belief that there is not enough time in the day, you could actually find yourself on a never-ending “to-do list treadmill” where your family and healthy habits like sleep and exercise keep getting put on the back-burner.

Taking Back the Narrative On Your Time

So how do you make your life actually line up with your true priorities so you can find balance? You take control of your schedule instead of letting your schedule take control of you.  This is done through intentional planning.

Intentional planning requires you to be clear on your priorities.  I mean, you’d probably agree with me that your own health and your family are more important than that committee you sit on or the book chapter you need to write.

As a physician, you constantly feel the need to say “yes” because we feel like it is something we should do.  It is this sort of thinking that starts shrinking the hours we have in our day.

When you realize that when you say “yes” to one thing, you are actually saying “no” to something else that matters to us… you’ll realize that your life may be out of alignment with what matters most to you.

It isn’t that you don’t have enough time in the day. We all have 24 hours in a day.  It is that you are prioritizing your time haphazardly.  You aren’t intentionally planning your time.

Intentionally Planning Your Time

So, it isn’t about your time.  It is about being honest with your priorities. Intentional planning allows you to get laser-focused on how you spend your time so that you reclaim hours for what matters most.  Things like sleep. And exercise. And your friends and family.

In Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he helps us understand the inherent problem with time management that so many of us experience.  Covey does this by breaking up our life’s tasks into four different areas.  This way we can categorize our 

He separates tasks that lay claim to our time in two ways.  First, he categorizes tasks by whether they are urgent or non-urgent and whether they are important or not important.  You might be surprised to learn where self-care tasks and routines fit into this model, but it will explain why we often fail to perform what are arguably the most important (yet most often neglected) tasks in our life.

The Four Quadrant Time System

If you break up Covey’s four possible labels for your tasks, you are left with four categories when it comes to time management:

  • Not important, and non-urgent
  • Not important and urgent
  • Important and non-urgent
  • Important and Urgent

If we slow down to take a look at these four categories, we will quickly realize that most of our time should be spent in the last two categories where all tasks are important.

However, that’s not what most of us do.  Most of us spend our time on urgent tasks regardless of how important they are or not.  This is why people feel like they are running out of time.  

Constantly Putting Out Fires

Remember, most people don’t feel like the master of their schedule. They feel like their schedule controls them.  The reason is that we are constantly putting fires out.  Fires at work. Fires at home.  

This is a result of focusing on urgent tasks that are not important. It also leads to us ignoring all of those important tasks that are non-urgent in nature.  

And when you are living a reactionary life, it is very hard to be intentional about where you spend your time.  Why? Because all of it gets taken up by these urgent and – if we are honest with ourselves – not very important tasks we constantly complete.

We hear the email notification, and we feel compelled to answer. Or the social media ding. What’s going on over there?  Oh, a text message or call.  Definitely need to answer those.

And we know that we do this, because when a true emergency comes up, it brings clarity.  All of a sudden all of those things that we tell ourselves “have” to happen are suddenly unimportant.  

 

Starting With the End in Mind

This is one of the reasons that intentional planning is so important.  This intentional planning process is broken up into two parts.  So, here is the practical application for this post.

The first step is to get really clear on your priorities. I’ve found the best way to do this – outside of a coaching call – is to think with the end in mind.  You can do this by writing down your responses.  In other words, what would “you in the future” think about your current time management and priorities?  

Break out your calendar and look at the last week. How did you spend your time?

If you looked out into the future 10-20 years, what would that person tell you about spending time with friends and family? What would they say about sleep?  Or exercise and a healthy lifestyle?  

Does that person in the future have thoughts about those committees, book chapters, or research projects?  What about the amount of time you spend looking at your cell phone?

This can help you get clear on your priorities that are both urgent and non-urgent in nature.  This helps you build the Hell Yes Policy we are so fond of talking about at The Physician Philosopher – where you learn to say “no” to anything that doesn’t make you say “Hell Yes!”

From Abstract Principles to Concrete Scheduling

If you start with the end in mind, you’ll more clearly be able to determine what matters and what does not.  Then, you can apply these principles as you make your weekly schedule.

With this process – which we talk more in-depth about in Episode 7 of the podcast – we tell you to start with your self-care tasks first.  Things like sleep, exercise, and a date night out with your spouse.  

You’ll notice that these all fall into the important, but NOT urgent category of Covey’s four quadrants.  This isn’t by coincidence either.  Because – as we have discussed above – if left to our own devices we will operate in a reactionary fashion… putting out one fire after the other. Regardless of whether they are important or not.

This means we must intentionally schedule our long-term priorities first.  Particularly, when they are non-urgent.  

So, get those 3 days per week you plan to exercise on the calendar.  Make sure you get enough sleep.  Pencil in the date night on Friday.  Better yet, write it in permanent marker. 

Then, you can fill in the remaining maker tasks that require a substantial amount of your time.  And, finally, fill in the manager tasks that don’t require deep focus, but need to get done nonetheless.

Your Real Priorities lead to Work-Life Balance

This is going to get harsh for a minute, but if you can get past being offended this truth will allow you to master your time management issues.  

If you learn to plan your time intentionally each week – which is an iterative process you’ll get better at with time – you’ll notice a couple of things.  

First, when you start adding in the important, but non-urgent tasks other things will have to give.  And this is fine. Because you are no longer going to tell yourself the story that you “don’t have enough time” and replace that language with “This isn’t a priority for me right now.”  

Because THAT is the truth.  Work-life balance is about priorities. Not time.

If you decide to not exercise.  To not hang out with friends or family. To not get the coaching you need. Or to take care of that student loan plan you’ve been putting on the back burner… it isn’t about time. It is about prioritization.   

It never has to do with the 24 hours in the day that we all get. It has to do with what you are or are not currently making a priority in your life.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Once you are honest with yourself about your actual priorities. You know, the ones that your schedule reflects each week… only then can you make real change.  

Until then, you will be living as a victim of your schedule.  You will continue to tell yourself you don’t have the time to find work-life balance.  And your priorities will remain a list of things that are supposedly important to you, but that your life doesn’t reflect.

BUT, if you can release that!  If you can be honest about your priorities, then you can do the hard work of helping your schedule reflect your priorities.  And with each week, it can get closer and closer to the values and priorities that are important to you.  

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