Fighting Burnout by Protecting Your Time

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There is almost nothing more valuable than our time.

In the medical profession, we talk a lot about burnout— physical and emotional exhaustion caused by chronic stress. The symptoms of burnout can range from headaches to feelings of hopelessness, from low self-esteem to sleep difficulties. Left unchecked, burnout can lead to a whole host of physical and mental consequences, including insomnia and depression.

There are a number of causes of burnout, high-pressure jobs sitting at the top of the list. But what is it about high-pressure jobs that can lead to chronic stress? Unrealistic job expectations, feeling out of control, working too hard— these all play a part.

Among these things, feeling out of control really sticks out to me. I feel like this most often when a day has come to an end and I can’t point to what I’ve been able to accomplish, whether for myself or for my work. The feeling of time slipping by without having done something meaningful can be incredibly demoralizing. There are a number of things that can lead to this feeling— “busy work” that feels empty, being distracted from big tasks by social media or chatty colleagues, trying to multi-task when you really want to be focused and engaging with friends or family.

Below are a few tips to protect your time to help you feel more in control of your work, your relationships, and your days:

Decide what’s important to you. Get clear about what you can and should take care of first, then do it.

Decide what you can let go of. If it didn’t make your list of important items, ask yourself if it’s necessary. Do you really need to attend that meeting?

Embrace ‘no’. You don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything.

Be mindful about social media usage. We live in an age in which distractions dominate our mental landscapes. Just as we are about to begin an important task, just as we are sitting down to respond to an important email or to engage with a colleague or family member, there’s a ping from our phone. The next thing we know, we’re responding to a text, then checking Facebook, then looking at our Twitter alerts, then scrolling through Instagram. How many times a day does this happen? Consider how much of your day you might reclaim if you allot social media usage to certain times of the day.

Similarly, schedule times in the day to check email. Checking email throughout the day as it comes in is a notorious productivity-buster. Having designated times to check your email will allow you to attend to the important things on your list, leaving you more time in the day to spend in ways that feel meaningful.

Schedule time for yourself every day. 30 minutes to journal or do yoga— whatever the thing you do for yourself is, schedule it the way you schedule a dentist appointment. You don’t argue with the calendar, you go. Honor this time, every day. You’ll be so much better-equipped to help others once you’re giving yourself the gift of time.

Create boundaries for text, cell, and email responses. With smartphones, it is so easy to feel as though we’re on-call at every hour of the day and night. It is okay and good to unplug.

Our time is invaluable. Being more mindful about how we spend it will not fix the epidemic of burnout among doctors. There are a number of institutional issues that demand to be addressed. In the meantime, protecting our time is one resource to add in our tool belt to fight chronic stress. These practices serve as a reminder that our lives have worth and meaning and our time is precious.

Tracy Sanson