Doctors are familiar with dilemmas.
In medicine, problems with no neat solutions abound. Choices proliferate, and every decision can be the difference between sustaining life, or extinguishing it.
Who to treat, whether to treat, how to treat.
Early in their training, doctors must learn the art and skill of prioritisation.
One governing principle guides their thinking: to do only what works. Their focus is on effectiveness.
But doctors also understand that no treatment is sometimes the best medicine. Life allots a span of time that will ultimately expire and sometimes it is best to let nature take its course..
So, what can those who patrol the boundary between life and death teach us about the stewardship of our most precious resource — time?
I asked some top doctors what they thought.
This is what they told me.
1 Treat The Mind
Sean says the key is remembering it’s not the stress that damages you, it’s your response.
Here are three ways to toughen your response.
- Take back control.
- Cultivate an optimistic mindset.
- Spend time with people you love.
Is this an antidote or prophylaxis?
It doesn’t matter. Either way, a healthy mind prepares you to do a better job of handling stress.
2 Don’t Take It Home
To lead a better life, to have productive time and do the things you want, pay attention to boundaries.
Tess Gerritsen is a novelist and doctor so is someone who understands the necessity of creating life compartments.
Now she’s a doctor juggling patients and their needs. Then she’s a novelist, crafting new worlds on the page.
Two different worlds.
Experience might bleed from one area to the other, but to be effective in either, Tess knows she has to focus.
Her years of experience led her to develop a rule that allows her to keep things straight.
It’s a rule that anyone could adapt.
There are two lessons you can learn from Tess.
- If you can do it now, do so.
- Establish clear compartments in your life.
Here are some boundaries to consider:
- Work: Not work.
- Creative work: Administrative work.
- Work time: Family time.
- Professional: Social.
- Work: Vacation.
- Awake: Asleep.
- Daytime: Evening time.
3 Be Human
You don’t get wasted time back.
This brute fact can produce a cult like adherence to productivity systems, ruthless prioritisation and cold-eyed pragmatism.
Dr Hilary Jones is a popular UK based TV doctor. When I asked him to share some insights from his decades of medical practice, he was unequivocal.
However essential, it’s not enough to just prioritise. Behind every decision you make is a choice. To do one thing and not another.
When you make your choice, remember your decision may affect other people. Hilary reminds us a little humanity makes all the difference.
The next time you’re ruthlessly prioritising, bear this in mind.
4 Keep The Home Fires Burning
If you’re dead on your feet, exhausted and worn out and you’re a doctor, your patients should worry.
This is not an optimal state for doing your best work in any context.
Dr Susan Biali Haas lists flamenco dancing among her many interests but it’s her ability to juggle so many roles that makes Susan stand out.
She’s not only a medical doctor, she holds a Batchelor’s of Science in Dietetics and runs a successful business as a wellness coach, lifestyle expert and international speaker.
When I asked Susan what she thought she told me that ‘keeping the home fires burning’ is a big priority.
Not allocating sufficient time to care for yourself properly is a common problem when time gets squeezed.
It’s easy to put your head down and force yourself to carry on.
Resist the temptation to keep ploughing on regardless. Instead, keep your mind and body fuelled and rest regularly.
5 Dump Energy Sinks
With all this experience and expertise, she makes a compelling case for managing time with care.
Mamta says she prefers to think of time as energy.
There are two kinds of activity:
- Life enhancing, energy giving.
- Life diminishing, energy sapping.
Do an audit of how much of each is in your life.
Eliminate the latter and grow the former.
6 Return To Your Purpose
I agree with Clark that clarifying and re-clarifying your ‘why’ — the central purpose or purposes to your life’s work is crucial if the work you’re doing is to have meaning.
When time pressures lead to feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to lose sight of your purpose. Clark encourages us to be kind and caring to ourselves.
7 Beware Of Productivity Tools
Productivity tools are everywhere.
All these applications and software claim they’re designed to help you be more productive.
Hang on though, not so fast.
Not every tool suits the way you work. Dr Magnus Harrison hits the nail on the head.
Email is a monster — don’t add to your time management problems by converting emails into jobs.
Use each productivity tool to do the job the programmers designed it for.
Your email client is not a to-do list management tool.
Bonus Tip 1 — First Do No Harm
Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is a foundational medical ethic.
It teaches medical students a vital truth.
For any condition, it may be better not to do something or even do nothing than potentially to make things worse.
If you’re battling to manage your time more effectively, you may suffer from several symptoms:
Treating the symptoms of your time management malaise may do you more harm than good, however.
If you don’t diagnose the source of your time management problem, easing its symptoms might encourage you to pile on more time-consuming activities.
Doctors all agree. A sound diagnosis is the basis for all effective treatment.
Bonus Tip 2 — Triage Your Responsibilities
Medical triage evolved on the battlefield.
It is a tool which enables a field doctor to provide the greatest good to the greatest number of casualties.
Although doctors use more sophisticated algorithm today, they originally categorised casualties as:
- Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
- Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
- Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.
You can apply a similar method to your priorities and triage them like this:
- Tasks which are likely to get done, whether or not you pay attention to them.
- Tasks which are more complex and which need planning to make them achievable.
- Tasks which you can do straight away and which completed will make the boat go faster.