Yes, I know that as physicians we are all busy. So imagine my surprise when my recent article, “Does Loneliness Add to Physician Burnout?” got so much attention on social media. Doctors agreed. They agreed that physicians are, indeed, lonelier than others. They agreed that connection could help bridge that gap. And … they agreed that it wasn’t likely to happen. Because doctors are too busy.
Busy. We use that word like it’s a badge we’ve earned in scouting. The answer to so many questions: “How are you?” “Busy.” “What’s going on?” “Oh, I’m so busy.” “Do you have time to talk/get coffee/go to the gym?” “Nope. Too busy.”
It turns out that the ancient Chinese symbol for busyness has two parts: heart or soul and killing. So busyness actually leads to the death of our soul. Many people feel that busyness reflects a degree of importance, of stature. Despite popular myth to the contrary, it’s actually not good to be busy.
Thought leaders today have even developed patterns to “unbusy” themselves. Physicians can learn a lot from these folks. Straightforward ideas like eliminating non-essentials from your calendar, scheduling time for fun or exercise, knowing you are in too deep when something exciting is offered and — instead of jumping at the chance to go to that concert or eat at the new restaurant — you feel dread and overwhelm.
Part of the angst of being busy is also feeling no control. Lack of control is rampant in doctors’ lives these days. We can’t control our patient flow or operating room start times. We can’t control the type of electronic medical records our hospital employs. We can’t control whether we can get home in time to do the things that matter most: see our kids; kiss our spouses; oh, and maybe eat and sleep.
One of the practices that has helped me and many of my coaching clients is establishing clear boundaries. Boundaries can allow us windows of time, bring us a modicum of control, and reduce our stress. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this simple fact: “No” is a complete sentence.
When we set boundaries, it opens the possibility for a sliver of time to emerge. Instead of bombarding that little time nugget with the twenty things on our “to do” list for that day, what if we decided to make a “don’t do” list?
As one of my mentors, Dr. Martha Beck, says we need to learn the 3 Bs: Bag it; Better it; Barter it. Essentially, Dr. Beck recommends to do a “brain dump” and write down every darn thing on your list. And then: break it down. What can you delete altogether? What can you improve upon (a personal thanks to Audible and podcasts, who save the day during long commutes)? And what can you pawn off and trade?
This can help not just on the homefront but in the workplace. Does one of your physician partners enjoy doing Procedure A and actually has great skill in it, while you have a preference for Procedure B? How can you use that information to negotiate a more streamlined approach to seeing patients with a need for Procedures A and B? Does it take some time to get creative and develop these strategies? Sure. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
So how can the average super-busy physician make time for connecting, on top of everything else on their list? Prioritizing. Instead of giving yourself the daunting task of ten things every day on your list, why not pick the one thing you must do, without fail? You’ll get that energy of completion and that satisfaction can lead to a more expansive attitude about your schedule.
And maybe making time to connect with others doesn’t have to be such a big deal. We can connect with others the tiniest bit in our daily lives. Reach out to your mail carrier. The older person behind you in the grocery store. The barista at the coffee shop. Every connection doesn’t have to involve a heart-to-heart one-hour conversation about your dreams and wishes (and I know a lot of spouses who are nodding their heads in gratitude at this one). It can just be a sentence and a smile.
I get it. We are busy. Busier than most people. And we can improve that in incremental ways that can have a huge impact on our lives, our health, and our future. So, I’m asking you: Have a minute to spare? Yeah. Me, too.
Starla Fitch, MD, is an ophthalmologist, speaker, and personal coach. She blogs at Love Medicine Again and is the author of Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD.