With seemingly endless to-do lists, protocols and administrative duties, time management is an essential factor for achieving your personal and professional goals while also providing excellent care to your patients. Here are four key steps that can help you take back your time.
1. Lay the Groundwork
The first step to better time management for doctors is introspection. Reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, your habits and your objectives. How, when and where are you most (and least) productive? Articulate what you’re looking to accomplish by making a change. More time for career development or family? General stress management? Greater work-life balance? Setting so-called SMART goals — the abbreviation stands for “specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-specific” — will help you understand your time management needs.
Next, you’ll need to monitor how your time is spent. Create a time audit and note tasks that are taking longer than expected. You can do this by hand or with the help of time-tracking software and apps.
Constantly reevaluate your objectives and goals to make sure that the tasks you’re working on are helping you achieve them. It’s also important to keep the big picture in mind. Don’t let perfectionism stop you from hitting submit!
2. Create a Plan
The best way to actually make progress on your time management goals? Plan, plan, plan. With any new project, it’s important to first map out your timeline and process and then make planning a part of your weekly routine.
On Sundays, for example, break down your weekly goals into daily tasks so you know which days to accomplish which goals; each morning, set specific tasks for that day. Keep in mind that your energy levels will fluctuate throughout the week, so plan lower-priority tasks for Mondays, if possible, and more creative and demanding tasks for Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Consider scheduling meetings on Thursdays, when others’ energy starts to decline, and wrap up the week by using Fridays for networking and looking ahead. Don’t forget to look at everything crossed off the list and congratulate yourself.
None of this will work if you don’t stay organized. Schedule everything, using online applications that can be linked to your email, such as Google Calendar. Create color labels for specific calendars if you’re managing multiple family members’ schedules to ensure that nothing is missed. Mind your email: Physicians receive an insurmountable level of electronic communications. Use email settings to archive emails that do not need to be taken care of immediately, create labels, enable templated responses for messages that are sent regularly and use filters to automatically assign specific labels to certain messages. And create folders (virtual or physical) to organize projects, papers and research. Name them so they’re easy to find. Create one folder for each research product, academic endeavor and strategic plan.
With all that planning and organizing, don’t overlook the value of scheduling downtime and prioritizing having a life outside of work. Block at least one hour a week to catch up, be creative or just let your mind wander.
3. Stay Focused
Even with an airtight plan and organizational chops, distractions abound. Do what you can to eliminate them.
For starters, step away from your device. Use the “Do Not Disturb” function on your phone and computer, and turn your phone over or put it completely out of sight so you can avoid mindlessly scrolling. Try using your phone’s settings to enforce a time limit for using specific distracting apps.
Even work itself can be a distraction from the task at hand. Focus on what needs to be done and avoid work that divides attention. For example, instead of checking email every few minutes, check once an hour. Similarly, avoid multitasking if possible, as it can ultimately limit your productivity and the quality of your work. Keep a separate list of to-do items that come up during the week. More broadly, use your time audit to set limits for each task, and put them on the calendar. Do leave a buffer in between tasks and meetings to give yourself time to clear your mind and reset.
To help combat procrastination, schedule the hard tasks that you don’t want to do first. This includes closing out charts of challenging patients with difficult diagnoses!
Finally, learn to say “no.” When you’re asked to do something, ask yourself whether the request is going to advance your career, bring you joy or help someone else. If not, politely decline and sponsor someone else for the opportunity. It’s important to be realistic about your time.
4. Look for Efficiencies
The last key to time management for doctors is to look for ways to do things faster — or not do them at all.
If you typically run behind, determine if more time is needed for visits. If closing charts is a challenge, consider a scribe. If your electronic medical records are dragging you down, ask for training on how to significantly decrease the time you spend on them.
Start each morning with a team huddle to ensure that everyone is on the same page with the plan for the day, and maintain open lines of communication with your team. Don’t be afraid to delegate: Tasks that can be effectively done by others should be handed off. For those huddles and other meetings, focus on the purpose of the meeting to avoid overly long conversations.
Of course, there will be inevitable downtime. Look for ways to maximize these moments. When you’re waiting in line or on hold, answer emails or complete one of your simpler to-do items. Or use this time to read, meditate or listen to a podcast.
Only you know what exciting goals improving your time management might help you achieve — but here’s one final time-saving tip: Update your CV in real time. Add each new publication, speaking engagement and award to your resume as it comes in. It’s one thing you won’t have to do when you’re going up for a promotion or during career transitions.