Physician Work-Life Balance Requires Reassessing Priorities, Limits

September 17, 2013

Traveling light, both in life and in medical practice, means being realistic about what you can use and taking an honest appraisal of your limits.

I am not known for traveling light. I like to have my contingency clothes - apparel made for a sudden and unexpected change in the weather. I usually pack at least two more exercise outfits then I will use, giving myself more credit than I deserve for being adherent to my exercise regimen away from home. I have a pathological fear of boredom, so I pack DVDs, my laptop, my Kindle, and at least one book (for when I can’t be plugged in). Add the clothes and shoes I actually do need plus toiletries, and I’m often loaded down like a pack mule. Watching my fellow fliers wrestle oversized "carry-on" luggage into tiny overhead compartments, I suspect I’m not the only one.

Recently, I went on a business trip where I actually did travel light. I think my extra, unused items included two T-shirts and a pair of exercise shorts. It was nice to truly only have two carry-on items and nothing to check. I didn’t have to reorganize anything at the TSA counter to make three bags magically morph into two. On one leg of the flight, they required me to check my small roller bag at the gate despite ample overhead room on the plane. When I got off the flight, I simply picked up my purse and walked off. Easy.

Traveling light means packing light. It requires an honest, pre-trip appraisal of what you need to bring. Truthfully, I never exercise every single day of a trip. So, this time I only packed the right amount of exercise gear; same for toiletries and clothing. I brought two books and finished one on the trip. I left the laptop at home in favor of just printing out the three-page meeting agenda and took notes with a pen and paper. I left the DVD player at home, which also meant I could leave the DVDs, headphones, and charger at home too. I even paid the $8 to ship the souvenirs I purchased home instead of packing them.

Traveling light is important in work-life balance as well. What types of worries, burdens, and thoughts do you bring along with you that take up space but which you don’t benefit from? Do you lug home your extra work instead of spending a few extra minutes at work just getting it done? Does your smartphone to-do list travel with you without ever getting smaller?

Traveling light means being realistic about what you can actually use. Simply packing four sets of exercise outfits is not the same as exercising for all four days of my trip. Similarly, stacking four months worth of medical journals on the corner of your desk doesn’t equal putting the knowledge contained into those journals inside your head.

Traveling light requires honest appraisal about your limits - whether that’s the size dimensions of your carry-on or the time you actually have in your day. Generating a massive to-do list is not the same as getting everything done on the list. It may be that you can’t both be on-call and go to the concert. Or you may only have room in your day for 20 patients – not the 24 your triage nurse is begging you to accommodate.

Traveling light is easier, more joyful, and less stressful than being overloaded. Today, as you start the work-life balance dance all over again, think about what you have room for.