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Finding Your Work-Life Balance

You have:

  • Meetings scheduled at 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM 
  • Tumor board at noon 
  • The queue is 45 cases long and growing
  • The phone rings for the fifth time in as many minutes 
  •  Someone is at your office door, again
  • Softball game with the family at 5:30
  • Haven't started dinner or that resolution to work out 3 times a week
  • You’re considering heading back to work to finish a few more cases, sleep...who has time for sleep?

Does that to-do list sound familiar to you?  Who doesn't want a career, personal relationships, and personal goals to nicely fit in the few hours a week you have? But making time for all the things we feel we have to do (let alone all the things we actually want to do) can be downright stressful. After listening to a TED talk by Laura Vanderkam1 about the '168 hours' we all get each week, I have started to rethink my approach to trying to do it all.

Consider Your Priorities

There are many things I would like to accomplish, both personally and professionally.  However, the hard truth is that I probably cannot fit in EVERYTHING, at least not in the one day or week or month I sometimes give myself. 

This realization can be a bitter pill to swallow. But before getting stressed about trying to do it all, have an honest conversation with yourself about what you are trying to accomplish.  At work, is your goal to sign out at least 90% of your cases every day? Or to finish writing that manuscript? Or to research the new analyzer you want to bring into the lab?  At home, do you want to have at least an hour a day of family time or to catch up with friends every weekend? Are you hoping to finally watch an episode of that show you've meant to see, to start a walking program, to read for fun a little more often? 

I was inspired by Vanderkam’s perspective on trying to do it all, “We don't build the lives we want by saving time. We build the lives we want, and then time saves itself.” She suggests picking one or two items from each major domain in our lives -- career, relationships, and self -- and treating those items as priorities (whether short- or long- term).  Every week as you think about what you would like to accomplish, keep those priorities and put them on your schedule!  If you need help slimming down your to-do list, she suggests pretending it is the end of the year and you are sitting down for your annual performance review or working on your family holiday newsletter.  What would you want to hear in that review or be able to add to your newsletter? Those are your priorities.

You probably have more time than you think. Vanderkam notes that even if you get a solid 8 hours of sleep every night and put in 60 hours at work, you will still have 52 hours a week left to tackle the daily chores of life and maybe even make progress on some of your longer-term goals.  

Tracking Your Time 

For one week, I tracked how I spent my time and a lot of my time was spent looking at slides and signing out cases.  I also spent a significant amount of time talking with staff and clinicians, preparing for meetings and tumor boards, handling routine administrative matters, and on and on.  However, even with all the other work that rounds out my practice, I was surprised at the amount of random time sinks in which I was just messing around on my phone. Ten minutes here, 20 minutes there—we all need mental breaks, but those minutes add up.  More importantly, these mini-mental vacations hampered my productivity just as much as work-related distractions did.  

 Fortunately, I found that if I stayed aware of the temptation to let myself be distracted by my phone or the internet while still also allowing myself a few necessary mental breaks throughout the day, I could get through the work I wanted to complete more efficiently.  I do not recommend trying to become a 100% efficient machine but consider doing your own time study to see how exactly you are spending your time in and out of the office.  You may find that you have more time than you thought to dedicate to your real priorities. 

Taking Stock of Your Priorities

Ultimately, time (and how you handle it) is more about perception than math. Taking stock of your priorities and your routine can reduce the stress and pressure that come with feeling unfocused; you create a framework to allocate time (and attention) to the things you have consciously identified as most important to your work and your personal well-being.

If you want to feel like you have even more time, consider setting aside space in your calendar at least once a week spend however you see fit.  Perhaps you use that time for office hours so that your lab managers can discuss diagnostic questions or ideas about lab productivity with you.  Perhaps you carve out time in the afternoon so that if you feel like going for a bike ride or working on a paper, you can.

Finally, try to actively ‘linger’ over good experiences and jobs well done.  Come back to them in memories and discussions with family, friends, and colleagues.  Changing your approach may leave you feeling that time is actually on your side—at least most of the time!


1 Vanderkam, Laura. How to Gain Control of Your Free Time. Retrieved from TEDEd

Dr. Juanita Evans is a community pathologist in the metro Detroit area, where she practices general anatomic pathology and hematopathology and also serves as laboratory medical director for one of the hospitals her group serves. She is also an active volunteer with the CAP, where she currently serves on both the Practice Management and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committees.

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