Getting It All Done
Effective time management warrants a proactive, not reactive, approach.
Let’s acknowledge the challenge of maintaining a balanced life. For most of us, this is a chronic and ongoing problem. Naturally, there are times when life goes well and everything is in balance. Then, there are times when the opposite is true. But life is a marathon, not a sprint. In order to establish some balance in our busy lives, it is important to take a proactive approach to time management.
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
Know yourself. You have a finite amount of working time in each day. Knowing yourself and understanding the way in which you operate is crucial to making the most of that time. Ask yourself: Which tasks are the hardest for me? Which are the easiest? At what time of day am I at my best? What stands in my way of getting things done? After determining the answers to these questions, make it a point to tackle your hardest tasks when you are at your best.
For example, I find it challenging to sit down and start writing a manuscript. I know this about myself, so I do everything I can to make the task as easy as possible. Once I get started, it is a pretty straightforward process. Therefore, I try to plan the right time to sit down and begin—even if my writing is not perfect, at least I have gotten started.
Block time in your schedule. I find that blocking time in my schedule is an effective way to make time to tackle specific tasks (Figure). For example, recently when I had to work on a talk, I set aside 2 hours in my schedule, which allowed me to stand at least a fighting chance at getting it done.
In order to block time effectively, you must engage your staff. Let them know that, if you have time blocked off on your schedule, they should not interrupt you during that time unless it is urgent. Also, our electronic devices can be wonderful tools, but they are often distracting and can interfere with our productivity. Nonstop use of these devices creates a dopamine overload in the limbic system, putting us in a constant state of hypervigilance as we wait for that next ping. So, when you are trying to complete a challenging task, turn off your devices.
Take control of email. How much time do you spend managing email? Keep your inbox under control so that it doesn’t control you. Dedicate a specific time to answer emails, but make sure it does not conflict with your peak performance time. For example, set aside 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon to answer emails. Consider setting an automatic reply that informs people you will not be checking your email until the end of the day, and, if a matter is urgent, they can call you. Alternatively, if you receive an email that you can respond to in 2 to 3 minutes, then go ahead and do so. If the message is more complex, then schedule a time to craft a response.
One of my pet peeves is the overuse of reply all. Reduce inbox clutter by avoiding the use of this feature. Simply reply to the individual who sent the email, unless it is absolutely necessary to include all of the recipients. In addition, being on duty 24/7 is not healthy, so be sure to put your phone away at night. Don’t sleep with your phone, and, if you wake up in the middle of the night, resist the urge to pick up your phone and start answering email.
Use technology to stay on track. If you are data-driven, competitive, and at ease with technology, then using a productivity app might work for you. Some apps offer positive rewards, such as points or icons, to help users stay on top of a task (one popular app uses a pomodoro timer to track progress toward completing a task). These may be a useful productivity aid for some.
Ask for help. Know which tasks you can delegate and then make it a point to follow through. Train people to help you with the tasks you can outsource. Whether your office staff, technicians, residents, or house cleaner, let other people help so that you can concentrate on what you truly need and want to do.
START WITH TAKING CARE OF YOU
Utilize coaching. Seeking coaching from colleagues can help us recognize our weak spots, exploit our strengths, and be as effective as possible. Coaching is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
Turn to your peers. Look for opportunities to work on personal and professional development with your peers. I am a strong supporter of the Women in Ophthalmology meeting and try to attend every year. This is a great forum for networking and for realizing that you are not alone in the challenges you face. Seek opportunities to connect with others within your own institution, locally, or nationally.
Put on your own mask first. Take care of yourself before tending to others. This is not a luxury but a necessity. Be sure to get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, and meditate. There is a whole body of literature suggesting that meditation can positively influence brain chemistry and promote neuroplasticity. Cultivate your leisure activities, and take vacations. You do not want to end up as that 75-year-old physician who is ready to retire but doesn’t know what to do with the rest of his or her life.
Stay connected. Our connections to others bring joy to the practice of medicine. It is important to connect with the people around you, be they family, friends, colleagues, or patients. (The latter can be life affirming as well.) Don’t be an island.
Forget perfection. Perfection is not required to be a good physician, leader, spouse, or friend. We are all on a lifelong journey of personal growth. Sometimes the route is short and smooth, and other times there are bumps along the way. Acknowledge your failings and limitations. It can be liberating to know that you do not have to be perfect to be good enough. Come to terms with your imperfections, but continue to work to make improvements.
Failures are bound to occur. Occasionally you break the bag, see endophthalmitis, or encounter a retinal detachment—these complications are often the most catalytic experiences, so make the most of them. Strive to live proactively, rather than simply reacting to things as they occur. Above all, remember to stay focused on what is most important in life.
Kathryn Colby, MD, PhD
• Louis Block Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at the University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
• Financial disclosure: None