It’s 6:19pm, and I’ve been awake for a little over two hours now. Despite having had a (relatively) quiet call shift on the Acute Care Surgery service, I still found myself waking up well past my self-imposed noon deadline. Seems like I’m getting old – I remember doing a busy night shift as a paramedic and then going straight into the office and working all day, then partying all night. As my body starts to require more and more horizontal time, I jeopardize my ability to say yes to – and deliver on – tasks I want to do. It’s reminded me to be efficient and disciplined with my time, a challenge I’m often asked about.
The ability to create a 25th hour in a day, or an eighth day in the week, continues to elude me. Over the last decade, however, I’ve tried just about everything else to create time to work hard and play harder. Keeping balance in the foreground as I plan my weeks, months and years ahead, there are a number of tricks that I use to maximize my time-on-task, and thus my productivity. Here’s a few of the tricks that help. The first five are principles and the second five a visual tools.
#1: I don’t have cable or Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, I have a few TV shows that I try to stay up to date on, but I tend to binge-watch a season (HOUSE OF CARDS COMES OUT THIS WEEK!) rather than follow along on a network’s schedule.
#2: I minimize my time on social media. We’ve all gone to check our Facebook wall only to regain consciousness four hours later with a youtube video of a baby monkey riding on a pig playing. Avoiding the trap of clicking link after link of entertaining but not-so-useful media means more time to read, write or sleep. Going to bed early instead of surfing aimlessly through the infinite web world means I can wake up earlier and start my day rested.
#3: I get out of the House. House has Bed and House has Toys and House has a million other distractions. When it’s time to work, I grab my satchel and head to a coffee shop, where I grab Java, plug in, and get to work.
#4: I automate my life. I’m not great with technology, and a million resources can tell you better than I how to maximize technology in your life. But basically, if I’m supposed to do something that my phone or computer can do for me, I make that happen. Bills are set to automatically withdraw, cheques are set to automatically deposit, and whatever else can be automated, is.
#5: I outsource. It’s expensive, but having a cleaner, an accountant and a mechanic means I don’t blow a much-needed day off vacuuming, shuffling papers, or changing oil. I also hired a trainer – it maximizes my hour at the gym, motivates me to show up, and he’s super hot.
Now, I’m a visual person, and I’ve developed (or, to be more accurate, stolen) a number of tools that help keep me on track and prevent me from becoming overloaded.
#1: Categorizing with domains. I’m a bit of a scatterbrain. If I could, I would be an air traffic controller, a doctor, a lawyer and a zookeeper. Sadly, my brain isn’t smart enough for all that. I’m a firm believer in being really good at what you do, so I work hard to develop specialty in the things I care most about. Stealing the CanMeds graphic that presents the core competencies a physician should possess, I have 12 of my own domains that I try to constrain myself to. Of course, nothing is set in stone, but it does help me focus on what I want to do with my life. Red items are firm commitments. Green items are exploratory. Don’t bother trying to interpret the acronyms – I can barely remember what I’m trying to tell myself half the time.
#2: The Long Term Planner. Using my domains as the X axis and 3-month periods as the Y axis, I can generally keep track of my commitments a few years down the road, making sure I’m neither bored nor overloaded. I only peak at this every few weeks, but it keeps me focused on where I’m going and what I need to do to get there. It also helps me evaluate if a domain I think is important actually is. Domains occasionally drop off the planner or sneak their way in.
#3: The research tracker. It’s easy for a research project to disappear into thin air. Research can be frustrating and complicated, and sometimes a phase can be roadblocked for months or years. This tracker motivates me to make progress, keeps deadlines on my radar, and of course provides a disproportionate amount of satisfaction when I can delete a completed project.
#4: The weekly planner. Let me explain this, because it changed my life. In box one are things that are both important and urgent. Things like going to work so you don’t get fired. These have to happen or your mortgage doesn’t get paid. In box three are things that are urgent, but not so important. Submitting a grant for that study you accidently said yes to helping with falls into thi category. You’ve said yes (mistake #1) and now you have to do it. But you don’t want to, and it probably doesn’t do a lot to advance your interests. Box three fills up with things that stress me out, but don’t help me out. I’m nice, usually, so I say yes to lots of things. But saying no to box three items frees up more time for box two, things that are important to me (like reading, writing and having brunch with friends) but don’t have to happen. They are deferrable if I don’t have the time or the energy to do them. Going to the gym or to hot yoga belongs in box two, but often gets sacrificed as I struggle to complete urgent tasks. My minimizing nonimportant urgent tasks, I can focus on box two. When box one and three consume too much of my time, I don’t have the energy to attend to box two. That’s where box four comes into play. Box four is where I go when I’m tired. Youtube holes, Family Guy binges, and laying in bed reading about US politics all belong in box four, the box I wish I never spent time in.
My goal is to keep box three empty so that I can have the energy and time to focus on box two.
#5: The personal accountability calendar. This was another life-changer. Using this tool, I score every day before I go to bed as green (a good day), yellow (an ok day) or red (a day I shouldn’t have survived). Red days are rare. But as you can see, I’m pretty critical of myself, assigning a yellow as a form of punishment when I don’t meet a daily goal. It may be simple, like going to the gym or finishing an assignment or reading about Tylenol overdoses. It may be more substantial, like responding poorly to a stressor, making an egotistical or selfish decision, or failing to help someone when I could have. Regardless, I find myself in positions where I say “If I make Decision A, today will be a green day, but if I make Decision B, today will be a yellow day.” It might sound silly, but for a competitive person like me, it works. It also offers me a chance to track patterns. A series of yellow days indicates I need to change things up – contact a friend, get to a yoga class, or even book off work and take care of myself. By acknowledging that I’m falling short, I can come up with a self-prescription to get back on track. I also use this calendar to track with little codes my diet (three checkmarks means three healthy meals) and my fitness endeavours. Note the lack of running in January 🙁
These, of course, are a work in progress. Residency is a busy time, and I’m continuing to learn from those who have been when I am now. If you have any tricks or tips please share them in the comments… I need all the help I can get to squeeze every minute out of every hour.
In another post, I’ll share some of the on-the-job tricks I have to stay productive, safe, and sane. Thanks for reading this blog. See you next week!