Residency Survival Guide: How to Find Work-Life Balance

Between the constant backlog of patients, paperwork, and the stress of student debt — and thus, the subsequent pressure to take on more patients — there’s hardly time for basic household errands, never mind hobbies, or friends. Read on to learn how to achieve work-life balance — or at least a semblance of it.

1. Do: Block Off a Day for Yourself

Identifying your priorities and making time for them is key to work-life balance. Human rights technologist Sabrina Hersi Issa recommends blocking off a recurring day on your calendar every month—she picks her birthday date, the 16th—and calls it your “Personal Inventory Day.” Use this day to tackle what you need to do, no matter how big or small. Whether it’s catching up on cleaning or laundry, going to the bank, scheduling a doctor’s appointment, reassessing your goals, or simply a self-care day—make time to do whatever it takes to feel in control of your life.

2. Don’t: Mistake Burnout for a Hard Work Ethic

You’re new and you want to prove yourself, but a work ethic isn’t pushing yourself to the point of burnout. Feeling constantly dissatisfied and depressed — signs of burnout — are not requirements of being a good doctor. Set boundaries. Figure out how many patients you can comfortably manage and stick to it. If you feel like you’re overwhelmed, change your schedule and ask for help from your staff. That’s their job. Your job is to learn.

3. Do: Consider How Much Your Time Costs

Save time by using templates and checklists so you’re not staying late to do repetitive work. Use templates in electronic medical records and make clinic checklists. When people say “time is money,” they usually mean “working faster makes more money.” A more relevant interpretation of this would be: Accomplish your tasks by spending either time or money. If chopping vegetables would cost you an hour of time, but only $2, then you just bought an hour of time for $2. That’s a bad price for an onion but an unbelievable deal for 60 minutes.

4. Don’t: Give Up

There’s a psychological condition called adjustment disorder. It’s really just an intense version of normal adjustment. The diagnosis can’t be invoked for three months, as that’s how long it takes for a normal person to adjust to a new environment. And the bigger the change, the more complex the adjustment. Don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time.

5. Do: Protect Your Time and Invest in a New Skill

Investing some time into a hobby unrelated to medicine can help with work-life balance. If you don’t have one, go pick one. You should have an identity both at work and outside of work. It doesn’t just make you more interesting — you’ll feel much more fulfilled. Immersing yourself in a different activity can help you cope with stress and it will remind you that you’re more than your job title. Doctor, yes, but also an athlete or artist.

Survival Guide Tip

As Smokey Bear always said, only you can stop forest fires. In this case, you have the power to stop yourself from burnout. Take time, douse those embers, and rest.

Published June 2021

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