I feel pulled in different directions each day: called to serve my family and also called to fulfill my career demands. I find that the following approaches have helped me find some peace and organization in my busy daily life.
Writing Down My Goals
I physically write down my goals for the days and weeks ahead. I keep a journal and jot down thoughts before they escape. Each morning I try to focus on one or two achievable goals. Our modern lives are bombarded with constant streams of social feeds and updates. Having my goals written down keeps me focused and organized.
Keeping My Goals Short and Doable
If one of my goals remains on my list too long, it is often because the goal is too large, or I am not yet ready to achieve it. I think harder about how to reword the goal to achieve tangible results. I strive to break down bigger vague goals into quick achievable steps.
Setting Practical Deadlines
Having deadlines has made me more accountable and productive. After each of my goals, I set a reasonable “due date.” If the due date passes, I analyze where I may have went wrong in my estimations. Or, I think about what challenges may have come up to monopolize my time. I then choose a new deadline, taking into account my track history.
Re-strategize When I Don’t Reach My Goals
Life can get complicated and messy. Life does not always follow the course I want it to take. Sometimes traffic will make me late. Illnesses come up when I least expect it. Another emergency arises. This does not mean, however, that I need to throw away my plans or live a chaotic and disorganized life. Instead of looking at this negatively for too long, I consciously try to see the disorder of life as a challenge and a way to become better, stronger, and more resilient.
Practicing Gratitude Each Day
I strive to focus on 3 things in my life every evening that make me smile. There is so much I am thankful for. I have bad days interspersed with my good days, but regardless of what happened, I try to take 5 minutes in my evening to focus on what has brought me happiness and joy.
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.
Don’t you love that feeling in the morning when the day is full of rightness and promise? For me, this typically happens in the first 15 minutes of my morning when the house is quiet, my other family members deeply asleep. I can enjoy the quiet, meditate, and simply think through my day. However, once my other family members wake up one by one, the mornings are often time-pressed, rushing around to get the family ready for the day.
I have found the items below have made me happier and less frazzled as I step through my morning. Please read on for tips that will make you more organized in the crucial early morning hours each and every day!
1. Pack your lunches and bags the night before.
Doing this helps you to wind down the night before, and start mentally preparing for the next day. You may buy lunch occasionally, but packing your lunch most days will keep you on track with both diet and budget. Also, being disciplined in packing your bags each night helps prevent any last minute forgotten items the next day.
2. Know the weather forecast.
There is now little excuse NOT to know the forecast. Smart phones have changed the way we can obtain the weather forecast, making it accessible at the push of a button. You can now look up the next several days or the next several hours to plan appropriate clothing and to gauge how weather may affect your planned activities. You should be looking up weather forecasts every evening as you are planning your next busy day.
3.Set out outfits for yourself and your kids the night before.
This takes the guesswork out of getting dressed each morning. Of course, you should first do step 2, investigate the weather, so you will be spot on in your clothing choices.
You will have less arguments with your kids, particularly any opinionated toddlers, with this tactic. If your child wants to weigh in on their outfit choice, they are welcome to do so, the night before. It is much smoother and less dramatic to do this at bedtime rather than in the AM when you are pressed for time.
4. Wake up 15 minutes before your family members.
The reason for doing this is mostly selfish – you get a quiet moment to collect your thoughts and get things started. For example, I start arranging my kids’ breakfasts, grab my own breakfast, and get my coffee brewing. However, waking early has additional health benefits, including a better sense of accomplishment and less procrastination. In other words, you will be more productive and happier!
5. Have a routine for you and your kids.
We are all creatures of habit. Kids particularly thrive in the setting of routine – go potty, brush teeth, get dressed, breakfast. In addition, kids with routine are emotionally healthier and more socially adjusted. Sure, the first time or two you institute this will be challenging and sometimes painful. But once it is expected, it will feel natural and there will be much less conflict.
6. Check your calendar and your list of “things to do.”
Doing this the night before your day and each morning helps to avoid forgetting anything. I am pretty good at remembering my own appointments, but with 2 kids and a husband, sometimes it is hard to juggle everyone’s responsibilities. And sometimes, my cat has a vet appointment, too! I am partial to Google Calendar, since I can access it via my Google account on any device. I share my Google Calendar with my husband, which is incredibly helpful. I also love the “reminders” feature on my cell phone. I can set it to remind me at a particular day and time, e.g. “stop at the pharmacy tonight at 5 pm” or “pay the credit card bill next Tuesday evening.” There are tons of other time management apps and websites out there to choose from. Use technology to your advantage!
I have tried different exercise times. With 2 kids and a full time job, doing a workout right after getting home is really not feasible. (Once the kids are older, I predict there will be more after-school activities to keep me busy.) I am lucky enough to get an afternoon off each week, but that only accounts for one day. I also have an evening session of office hours each week, which adds to my late night fatigue. Late evening workouts have made it harder for to wind down and fall asleep easily. Lately, I have therefore preferred exercising in the morning. One huge benefit of this: once it is done, you are done for the day! I understand this is not always practical (I get it – have had to work at 6 am or 7 am with prior jobs). If this is your scenario, try to simply stretch or do some core strengthening exercises for 10 minutes in the morning. At first, it may be time consuming, but with practice, you can easily pare down your workout to a nice quick routine. It will make you a healthier person and help stave off coronary artery disease and diabetes. And you will feel amazing!
8. Come up with 2-3 doable goals for the day.
I have started doing this formally in the last couple of weeks, after hearing it suggested on several podcasts I love to listen to. I sometimes combine this with my “reminders” list. However, actually jotting your goals down on a wipe board or Post -It note holds you more accountable. It is crucial to keep your goals concrete and doable, so you mark off that “check box” or “strike it off” your list. So gratifying! Actually seeing the goals somewhere in writing also makes you more likely to carry them out. This is a great exercise for your longer term goals as well, e.g. at 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, etc.
9. Write down one thing you are thankful for.
Again, this is something new I have adopted in the last couple of weeks after some suggestions from other personal development websites. I do this mindfully and purposefully during my morning workout. It is so easy to fall into a rut of negative thinking and pessimism. Many of us, however, are blessed and fortunate beyond what we often consciously think about. I never worry about where my next meal will come from. I have more than enough clothes for myself and my family. I have a strong, sturdy roof over my head. My family is full of love and good health. Thinking in terms of optimism and gratitude improves your mood and sets the tone for happier day.
10. Fight the impulse to check your email and social media!
I myself fall into a rut of checking these “just for a second” in the morning while getting ready. 5 minutes later I look up at the clock and start cursing myself for doing so. Start setting aside specific times each day to check your email and social media, and for a specific time period. Set a timer on your phone to go off when the time has finished. Being more disciplined with these time drains will free up more of your time to accomplish your daily goals.
11. Leave 5 minutes sooner than your goal “leave time.”
Personally, this has become more challenging, now that I have two children instead of one. (It seems I have gotten exponentially less efficient each morning!) But my time in the Navy and military ingrained in me a sense of being prompt, and it still haunts me to this day. “10 minutes early is on time. On time is late. Late is unacceptable.” Whoever created this mantra must not have had young kids, right? Or any pets. (Last minute vomit a la cat, or leg rub on your freshly lint-rolled dress pants. Sound familiar to anyone else?) Setting a 5 minute buffer on your leave time will give you a bit more wiggle room and more success in getting out of the house on time. If you need a longer buffer, then by all means use one.
Toward a Better, Smoother Morning
I hope the tips I have laid out for you will make you more organized and less frantic each morning. Starting out the day on the right note is a crucial first step to a better, more productive day!