Working More Efficiently
We all want to end our day feeling fulfilled. As a working mom, I want my every action to count for good, be it with my family, friends, or my patients.
I recently read a post by Dr. Rebekah Bernard about burnout in women physicians. If you haven’t read it and you are a female physician, it is definitely worth a read. Even if you aren’t a female physician, though, it is an empowering article to challenge you to change your situation for the better.
Dr. Bernard’s words inspired me to write this piece on 3 tips I have used in my own life as I strive for a more efficient and happier work day.
3 Tips for a Better Work Day
- Planning your time. Live each day as it comes, but plan not only the day to come, but also the weeks and months on the horizon.
- Touch each item once. Be decisive in your tasks.
- Keep work at work. Or at least, do this as much as you can.
1. Planning your time.
You can go into each day without a clear game plan, and come out okay. However, having a loose framework personally helps me accomplish more and also leave work at the end of the day with a sense of purpose. I also feel that planning each workday, week, and month will give you a feasible and realistic way to accomplish your various tasks.
The following 3 steps outline how I strategize my work day:
A) Arrange the skeleton of your workday first with things you must do (for example, get kids up and dressed, shower, drive to work, activities after work).
B) Look at your daily schedule in terms of things that may be different (for example, my patient schedule varies, or you may have meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays). You can then pencil these into your day.
C) Create a list of tasks you need to get done and tasks you want to get done, and allot a bit of time for each of them. You can then fit them into your day in time slots where you are unscheduled. For example, you have a 30 minute block of time between arriving at work and before your first meeting – here you can plan to do a chunk of your paperwork (e.g. complete half of the paperwork on your desk). You should prioritize the “need to do” tasks, and then the “want to do” list should gets pushed down lower on your list.
I try to approximate how long each task will take (for example, answering 2 messages should take me about 5 minutes; addressing 10 emails should take me about 8 minutes total). I have come to realize over time that I underestimate tasks, so I add some wiggle room (e.g. adding a minute or two), particularly when I am tired, stressed, or feeling under the weather.
I break up huge tasks into smaller doable ones. For example, I may come in Monday morning with 10 refill requests. I set a goal for myself to complete 2 refills before seeing my first patient, and then filling 2 more after each of my patients when I get a couple minutes of down time.
This planning system works for me, and I do it loosely in my mind as I go through my day. It takes practice, but the more you do it, the more it becomes second nature. And doing things this way makes you feel more in control of your day, and less like that huge task list owns you and is going to defeat you.
You are of course welcome to write everything down. I do write down things on my Google Calendar, and I tried in the past to write things down for a few days, but I find that being too regimented gets stressful when I get behind.
Another tip for you to arrange your life is to plan to use a spare hour or two on your weekends to plan weeks and months ahead. For me, this usually involves planning my hobbies, my husband’s hobbies, vacations, family activities. These things I do write down, as juggling multiple calendars gets confusing. I have also started setting goals for myself with my health and fitness, finances, and vacation/rest. Writing these down helps to set you up for success.
Plans do not have to be set in stone, but having things loosely “penciled” down helps you get things out of your mind and somewhere out there in the real world. While doing this exercise, I realize that sometimes my goals are a bit lofty, and I need to break them down into more doable chunks. Getting your wishes written down and arranged in the weeks and months ahead will make them more real and achievable.
I also realize as you are doing this planning that unfortunately things do NOT always go your way. Illnesses will come up. A family emergency will arise. I try to be adaptable and less rigid with my schedule when this happens. The list of “things to do” and “things that are nice to do” will always be there, but that does not mean they are a must.
When an emergency arises, you should take 30-60 minutes to problem solve as soon as you are able, and determine what absolutely must be done, and what can wait. Once this is prioritized, you can break down where to fit each of the tasks you must do. You can write down the leftover things that must wait, and try to strategize when you could next complete them (e.g. next week on your day off, or next weekend when you do not have any plans).
One other piece of advice: do not overextend and overschedule yourself. You need to learn to say “no” to things that do not matter to you. If you have more free weekends and free time built into your schedule, these inevitable disasters that arise will not totally derail your life. You will have an extra evening, an extra Saturday morning, a spare Sunday afternoon here or there to “catch up.”
2. Touch Each Item Once.
Be decisive. This is a must if you want to get your day running smoothly, and keep yourself sane.
I have seen this tip time and again in several articles on working more efficiently. I am a perfectionist and “Type A” in my drive to do the best and most accurate work I can do. This allows me to thrive and do good work, but it is also detrimental when I am agonizing over things that really do not matter. I grammatical error in my note, or a small typo in punctuation really are very minor.
I have learned over time to “let things go” and it has really helped in my ability to get my messages and emails written, and my progress notes done. I also remember in residency agonizing over decisions. I would save a lab result or a message in my Inbox for several hours or a day or two, agonizing over what to do. Really, however, my first gut instinct would be the course of action I would take.
My habit now is to set myself up to truly touch things once. Once I have opened up an email, I look up what I need to look up, think of a viable answer, and send it on. I sometimes try to think through all of the possibilities (What if the patient wants this or that? What if they say no to my proposition? What if they say yes?!)
I have struggled to be less complete and thorough, and be more succinct in my work. Doing this relieves a lot of stress, and is more efficient as well. It is okay to be quicker and shorter with your actions. The person you are working with will reply, and guide your further action. You do not have to think of every possible scenario and plan for it. It only matters what this scenario will prove to be. Let life guide you where you need to go.
Keep Work at Work (As Much as You Can)
I strive to do this more and more in the last few years as my husband and I have built our family. My priority in life is to have a happy and healthy family, and feel fulfilled in the work I do. To do this properly, however, you need to have boundaries.
Starting out in residency and medical school, I was a work-a-holic. I would study often. I would stay up late. I would feel always behind, always catching up. I carried this over into my attending position after residency. And this is not a healthy way to live and work. I felt driven but unhappy.
As I have gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I have realized that life is more important than the work you do. I have learned to set healthier boundaries on my work life, and I feel happier with each and every limit I set. A great exercise I encourage you to do: write down 3 important things in your life. I guarantee keeping a clean inbox at work is NOT one of them. Why then, do we all strive to do this every day?
Over the last year, I have worked hard to keep my nose to the grindstone, focus at work, and work hard. I try to set a limit on how late I stay, for example, try to leave by “X-oclock” and get home. It helps to have an activity lined up (for example, I need to leave by 5:30 pm to pickup the kids at daycare), which often leads me to working more efficiently than I would have otherwise.
I also have worked hard to schedule short 5-10 minute breaks in my day. I have read several articles alluding to this, and I find it very much true. The old adage “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” definitely has some merit to it. If I stick it out and try to work straight for 40 minutes in a row, I find I am much less efficient. Taking just a 5 minute walk around the office helps to clear my head and boost my resolve to get more work done, in a quicker amount of time.
Being practical, however, I realize there are bad days or bad weeks when nothing goes your way. There will be times you get behind and need to catch up a bit at home. If you must do work at home, set a time limit and schedule it for a time when it won’t interfere with your family time.
My personal approach to working from home is scheduling chunk of time to finish my documentation or answer emails for a 1-2 hour block of time on a Saturday or Sunday evening. I then analyze my efficiency and see how accurate I was in my estimate of time. If I am off, what created the inefficiency? Hunger, fatigue, trying to multitask instead of single tasking, network slowness, shotty Internet connection?
Whatever caused the inefficiency in the past, write these down and try to
account for them the next time you must work from home. This will create a more accurate number. And if it is something you can circumvent (e.g. eating a snack to start with, or taking a nap before), do so.
“Catching up” from home is something I now try avoid like the plague, and you should too. I am happier because of this. If you must catch up and work from home, keep this intrusion in your life as short and efficient as possible.
You also should be honest with yourself before scheduling this into your free time. If you really have something else you “need” to do (catching up on your DVR, answering texts, etc), do those first, and then save the work for another, shorter chunk of time.