There are only 1,440 minutes in a day. As physicians, how can we best make use of every one of them.
When we are scheduled for a clinical shift, we are well aware of our work hours for the day (and any added charting time afterwards). However on our academic days working from home (WFH) the separation between work and leisure time becomes more blurry.
Harvard Business Review studies found that being on the road can help people switch gears between home and work (1). Blake Ashforth et al. in “All in a Day’s Work: Boundaries and Mirco Role Transitions” writes about the importance of the transition between work to non-work, including “boundary-crossing activities,” such as putting on work clothes and driving in your car (2). The paper emphasizes the importance of physical and social indicators that tell us something has changed.
Given WFH is not going away anytime soon, let’s talk about strategies to set boundaries and aid in the transition between these 2 environments when the physical commute is gone.
Parkinson’s law describes how the amount of work expands to fill the time available for its completion. The principle should be etched at the top of every physician’s calendar. Most of us have experienced Parkinson’s law while writing a paper, preparing for a lecture, or just about anything else with a due date. Suddenly it’s the day before the deadline and instantly your effort increases as the time for completion decreases.
There are 2 applications of Parkinson’s law that can aid us while WFH.
- Apply Parkinson’s law throughout your workday. Do our 1-hour standing meetings ever end early? Not likely. When we plan for more time than a task actually takes, we often take advantage of that time, even if it’s not productive. Challenge yourself to complete that 2-hour task in 1 hour. Use an aid to help you, like the BeFocused timer app, to set a hard stop to your task. It also instills a sense of urgency to watch the timer ticking down.
When you are planning your WFH day, don’t think about the time you HAVE to complete a task; think about how much time you will NEED.
- Set a hard stop to your work day. These hard stops are not only important for each task at hand but also the end of the work day. At what time do you want to end your WFH day? Calendar the time. Use your BeFocused timer and with that final “beep” you are done with your workday. By having a hard stop to your day, you will increase your effort to work more efficiently because your work day will be ending at a certain time (regardless of how many emails are in your inbox).
This is an area we must all practice self-compassion. When a day of hard work is done, it’s okay to stop. What this means is no emails when the kids go to bed, no late night work texts or Slack checks. You want some supporting data? Check out the article, Psychological Detachment From Work During Leisure Time: The Benefits of Mentally Disengaging From Work, by Sonnentag. Her research talks about psychological detachment, a state of being when you are mentally disengaged from work and you are not thinking about any job-related activities (like that patient from last night) or doing any job-related activities (yes, that means no email, Slack, charts). Sonnentag found that workers that practiced psychological detachment after work were more satisfied with their lives, experienced fewer symptoms of psychological strain, and had a better job performance (3).
We know that commuting helps the transition between work and personal life. But this transition doesn’t need to be a physical one. An article, The Positive Utility of the Commute: Modeling Ideal Commute Time and Relative Desired Commute Amount, from the journal Transportation reported that the most optimal commute length is 16 minutes (4). The happiest commuters use this time to plan their workdays on their way to work (5).
So on your next WFH day, block off 15 minutes at the start of your day and 15 minutes at the end of your day and plan your own WFH commute. Use this time for what has been shown to lead to happiness. For instance, my morning WFH commute consists of 15 minutes reviewing my day. I look through my Omnifocus (protip: check out this amazing time management software app) and calendar to get a sense of what the day entails. I usually also try to fit in a short meditation, which is known to reduce stress, increase your attention span, and improve sleep (evidence behind the benefits of meditation).
For the last 15 minutes of my WFH day, I plan my evening. I go to my favorite website for pursuing local events, print out some activities I can do with my kids, and reconfirm how I want my evening to look. I plan every minute because I’ve learned if I don’t plan, I am more likely to just sit around the house. Think also about scheduling that 6 pm work out or 9:30 pm appointment with a good book.
Want to do something more active with your WFH commute? Consider using this time to call a friend while on a short 15 minute walk. Both connecting with others and walking have been shown to have a positive effect on your mood (6).
Creating a WFH ritual will help distance you from your workday.
Feierabend (Feier=celebration + abend = evening) is an evening celebration that German’s partake in that marks the moment when your work day has ended. Many Germans celebrate with a German beer, but I want you to think about what you’d like to reward yourself with at the end of a hard-worked day. Is it calling family/friends, a run, a dance party with your kids, your own favorite beverage? Make your own ritual, it will help you celebrate what you have accomplished during the day (instead of focusing on what needs to be done).
Summary Action items
- Set limits on the amount of time you spend on a task, and consider using the BeFocused timer. The last “beep” of the timer signals the end of the workday. Hard stop.
- Plan out your ideal 15-minute virtual commute to start and end of your work day. Doing so will help you transition mentally between roles.
- Celebrate the work you do every day. Get in the habit of being intentional about celebrating something every evening at the end of your work day, even if it’s something small (like a boba tea). Schönen Feierabend!
- Jachimowicz J, Lee J, Staats BR, Menges J, Gino F. Between Home and Work: Commuting as an Opportunity for Role Transitions. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 16-077, Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 16-7. 2019. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2714478
- Ashforth BE, Kreiner GE, Fugate M. All in a Day’s Work: Boundaries and Micro Role Transitions. The Academy of Management Review. 2000; 25(3), 472–491. https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/amr.2000.3363315
- Sonnentag S. Psychological Detachment From Work During Leisure Time: The Benefits of Mentally Disengaging From Work. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2012; 21(2), 114–118. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23213103
- Redmond LS, Mokhtarian PL. The positive utility of the commute: modeling ideal commute time and relative desired commute amount. Transportation. 2001; 28, 179–205. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1010366321778
- Jachimowicz J, Lee J, Staats B, Gino F, Menges J. Between home and work: commuting as an opportunity for role transitions. Organization Science. 2021; 32 (1), 64-85. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2020.1370
- Miller JC, Krizan Z. Walking facilitates positive affect (even when expecting the opposite). Emotion. 2016 Aug;16(5):775-85. doi: 10.1037/a0040270. Epub 2016 Apr 21. PMID: 27100368.
As physicians we are managing many different roles in our lives: academician, researcher, clinical provider, spouse, parent, just to name a few. Despite our many roles, the amount of time we have in a day to complete the tasks of each role remains the same: 1,440 minutes. Is how you’re spending your 1,440 minutes in a day the way you want to spend them? By assessing your priorities, practicing time saving tips and being proactive and not reactive you can live the balanced life you’ve dreamt of. There are only 1440 minutes in a day. Are you utilizing them well?