Helping Physicians Balance Life at Home & Work

Being told to balance my life at home and at work better smacks of one more platitude. How exactly do I set about doing this? Suggesting to a physician that they examine their balance of responsibilities at home and work is like telling a patient with a bad head cold to take a cup of hot non-caffeinated tea and get a good nights sleep. You get a “you mean that’s it” look, and realize you’ve been dismissed as an amateur. I refer to it as the “remembering things your mother told you” solution.

You’ve never met my rock-of-sense almost 84-year old mother, but I’ve certainly tried hard in recent years to reflect on her lessons rather than those of my hyper-competitive and workaholic physician father dead now these 16 years. If I were to ask my mother to help you balance your professional responsibilities as a physician with your personal life this is pretty much what she’d say.

1. Start today – procrastination is barren.

2. Start small – every physician knows that 5-10% changes in the function of an organ system can mean the difference between survival or being on life support. You need no grand plans – they are the stuff of fantasy land.

3. Target mundane matters of daily life first – yes, I know that planning a weekly date with your spouse or partner over a Chinese meal sounds better. But, I’m guessing at least half the time it won’t happen, leading to it being abandoned altogether in 3 months. Try dawdling over coffee after a meal for 5-10 minutes each day and listening attentively.

4. Involve others in helping you make the transition. Acknowledge to your spouse and to your secretary or nurse at work that you need to get this particular house in order. They’ll be delighted to assist. Your support staff in the clinic will admire you for being willing to be vulnerable and will know that there will be a reciprocal benefit to them and your patients and colleagues.

5. Ditch the notion that you can change the world. Walk away at the end of the day knowing full well that your in-basket is unemptied.

6. Give yourself permission to cut back. We worry that if we scale back competitors will flock into town. All the evidence points to an impending physician shortage in many disciplines and in many parts of the country. You have more negotiating power than you realize. Which sounds better – burned out like a piece of blackened toast aged 55 or continuing to enjoy your profession at age 70 because you cut back to 80% involvement when you were 50?

7. Take up hobbies where you are just ordinary. Our competitive results oriented natures leads to us wanting to be medal winners at everything we do. Wanting to win sucks the fun right out of most every human endeavor. Value humility; as a profession we could do with more of it.

8. Examine for yourself the conventions of your profession, discipline, or the prevailing practices of your institution. Are they consistent with your values and needs. What’s the cost of 7 a.m. meetings to yourself and your family? How about weekend retreats or Saturday morning lecture series?

9. Remember the best things in life are free. You don’t need to invest in counseling (myself included) or any one of a thousand books. The solutions and your supporters in this initiative are right there under your nose. Open your eyes and ears. Start today.