Flexibility the Key to Achieving Physician Work-life Balance

August 14, 2012

My advice to patients is a lot like my approach to yoga - don't go to the edge of your endurance or capability, save something in reserve.

In yoga, you are supposed to listen to your body. Some days you’re rockin’ the balance moves or are super stretchy. Other days, you may be off - more prone to fall to the left or stumble out of position. However, this is all OK in yoga. Just breathe deeply and listen to what your body is telling you. Lately, I’ve abandoned my traditional approach to yoga which is similar to my approach to most things in life - pushing myself to the absolute limit. Instead of trying to do the most "balance-y" move or stretch the farthest, I’ve tried at least once during my yoga practice to stop myself from doing the most I can do and choose a pose I can attain easily.

I often counsel my patients to do just this - don’t go to the edge of your endurance or capability. Instead, do 85 percent and save something in reserve. Particularly for patients with conditions like fibromyalgia, I find this approach makes much more sense than the endless cycle of good days followed by really bad days that seem to define the condition so commonly.

That said, I find it extremely challenging to pull myself back from my own extremes. Somehow balance seems to define the ability to balance the two extremes of work and life excess. I picture huge loads on either end of a board, balancing precariously on the fulcrum. Balance may be obtained but there’s a lot of shaking and wobbly and doubt that it will hold. Instead, I think it makes more sense to make sure both ends - work and life - are not so overloaded so that balance is not achieved as a barely-there wobbly ride but rather as a sedate back and forth flow that’s never really in danger of being upended.

So, as I’ve gone through this past week, I’ve tried to employ my new yoga philosophy in my own work-life balance. This has meant a whole lot of deep breathing and has involved some uncharacteristic choices: saying "no" to the double-book patient who really doesn’t need to be seen today and deciding not to race to the hospital to see a patient in the tight spot in between a meeting and the start of my clinic, leaving it for a saner time of my day. Not putting extra pressure on myself to finish clinic on time, recognizing that the stress I feel about still being at clinic an hour after my last patient has left doesn’t improve my performance or my mood.

Just like in yoga, as my teacher frequently admonishes us, this approach takes out the struggle. The struggle to reach a position that in reality just really hurts. The struggle to balance on tired legs that didn’t get enough sleep the night before. The struggle to be all things to all people. The struggle to be thought of as nice and accommodating and capable. The struggle to achieve balance at the cost of peace and calmness.

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