7 Top Time Management Fundamentals For Expert Medics

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Why Write a Post on Time Management Fundamental for Medics?

I know from my day-job as a hospital CEO that healthcare is under pressure almost everywhere.

Demand is soaring while healthcare organizations battle to sustain high-quality services. I've seen at first hand how hard it is to balance the competing pressures.

Sadly, as the pressure mounts, people at the sharp end of patient care are being squeezed.

One the one hand, patients are more demanding, fuelled by Dr. Google and a rising tide of expectations. On the other, the organizations they work for continually search for cheaper or more cost-effective ways of doing things.

It's no surprise that levels of stress and dissatisfaction among doctors are on the rise.

For doctors, already among the most pressured professionals at work today, the time available for interacting with patients and for the multitude of other jobs doctors have to do is at an ever-increasing premium.

Inadequate time to do the right things well brings with it mounting levels of frustration which can easily slip into chronic underlying stress.

I've written before about the hazards that long-term stress creates and suggested a number of ways to counteract it.

But doctors feel like a special case.

We all need them to function at their best when we need them.


So what can doctors do to chisel out more time for themselves and so create additional room for full engagement with their patients?

Here are seven, time management fundamentals for expert medics.

1 Don't Be Canute About It.

King Canute demonstrated the futility of wishing things are different from the way they are. Step one is simply to accept you're in a world which makes unreasonable demands on you. No amount of huffing and puffing about this will change that fact.

Remember, it's only when you acknowledge the size and scale of a challenge that you can mount an effective response. By organizing your use of time, building systems and ways of working to make this easier, you're already taking back a measure of control.

You can start by creating a trusted system to manage your 'open loops'. These are all your incomplete tasks and they're a problem because your mind will keep cycling through them in an attempt to keep count and remind you to action them.

There are some great approaches to building a trusted system that many people use successfully. Here are three well-known ones:

Getting Things Done (GTD) — David Allen
Getting Results The Agile Way — J. D. Meier
Zen To Done — Leo Babauta

My advice is to have a look at systems like these, but don't feel wedded to all the details of any one system. Pick what you like and you think you'll use and then deploy those elements.

2 Be Vigilant With Your Time.

Like any busy person, a doctor has to juggle competing priorities. There will be times where the appropriate response to any request will be a straightforward and immediate 'yes'.

The problem is that you don't have an unlimited amount of time or energy. You have to choose what to focus on.

This is why it's sensible to hold some of your time and energy in reserve. If you're constantly paying out, you're going to find that sooner or later you're not going to have the headroom to absorb another problem.


That's when stress starts to set in, knowing that someone or something needs your attention urgently but you're not able to respond as you want.

Create a daily plan with built-in gaps for thinking time and space for the unexpected.

3 Communicate Effectively

Have you ever had one of those days which starts badly and goes downhill from there?

When you're under the pump, it's useful to let other people know so they can adjust their expectation accordingly.

There's nothing more stressful than running from one late appointment to the next. Put the brakes on and pause for a moment. If things are on the slide from a time perspective, it might be sensible to cut something out of your day now.

Alternatively, a call ahead letting people know you're running late can dispel the alarm you're feeling.

It's always better to face up to your situation and take action than to pretend that something magical's going to happen. Being proactive is an underlying theme in tackling your stress. When you stop and acknowledge what's happening, you open the door to make a change.

I've outlined several stress management techniques in the article What Is Stress Management About?

4 Delegate Effectively.

There's a saying that runs:


"If you want something done, ask a busy person."

In practice, I find this is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

No amount of wishful thinking or heroic effort will get you past the reality that there is only so much time in a day.

One of your options is to look critically at the work you're doing. If you're busy with jobs that someone else would be better suited to, it might be sensible to look for someone else to take them on.

This might involve discussions with more junior members of the medical team. Alternatively, you could look at ways to leverage more from your secretarial or administrative support.

More radically if you're in a position to do so, you could engage the wider clinical team in dialogue about how the various jobs that need doing could be reassigned, perhaps under protocol or through a guideline.

Delegation is time management kryptonite, but like any powerful substance, it has to be handled carefully. You'll need to climb the delegation slope, as it often seems initially to take longer to delegate than to do something yourself.

Delegation will, however, always repay your investment.

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5 Eliminate Time Wasters.

Each day you have an allotted amount of time you can use to perform your duties. Your primary tasks are likely to be patient facing, and then there will be secondary elements like note-keeping and administration.

Keeping secondary tasks well organized helps to minimize the impact they have on your primary role. There's still the potential for them to eat up time unnecessarily, however.

Conduct an audit of how you spend your day periodically. Using a time management chart you can quickly note how you spend each hour. You can find examples of time management charts and their use in this article.

Do an audit for a week once every quarter and you'll get a picture of where your time is going. You can then tackle the time-wasting categories and generate more useful time for yourself and your patients.

6 Maintain Balance.

Being a doctor is frequently a full-throttle experience. It's therefore important to build in times when you can de-escalate and unwind. Not only will this leave you feeling restored, it will also measurably increase your decision-making effectiveness.

Strive for balance in two separate ways. Firstly, plan your year and build into it periods when you take a vacation. Don't be tempted to skimp on these by telling yourself you're too busy. That's a one-sided bargain and the price is way too high.

Secondly, build in micro-breaks during the day. These enable you to get outside your head, breathe in and be in the moment. It is much easier to achieve if you develop a mindfulness meditation practice. With a little practice, you'll find it's possible to take a micro-break while walking down a corridor, or traveling in an elevator.

If you're skeptical about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, you probably haven't looked at the evidence for its effectiveness and the protective effect it has on anxiety and depression.

7 Keep The Flame Alive.

Most doctors have a strong 'why'. It's the reason you wanted to be a doctor in the first place. Many years of professional socialization adds layers of experience and know-how to that core rationale. Occasionally this can lead to cynicism when your values seem at odds with the way the world's set up.

Being constantly under pressure can also lead to disillusionment. After all, this wasn't what the dream was all about, was it? It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, it matters that you keep the flame alive.

When you do, by reminding yourself that you're still able to help people with what you know and with what you can do, you're cultivating feelings of self-worth.

People who do that, are those most likely to take action to help themselves when the pressure's on.

If you take the trouble to protect yourself by investing in some basic time management techniques, you're not only helping yourself.

The chances are, you'll be helping the next patient you see too.

Further Reading On Time Management Fundamentals

  1. 7 Habits That Build Improved Stress Resilience
  2. Diagnose Your Time Management Problem
Can you identify your biggest time management challenge?
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