Why breaks are important

November 19, 2018
Jennifer Frank, MD

Jennifer Frank, MD, reflects on how taking breaks helps her improve her productivity in all parts of her life.

Editor’s Note: Physicians Practice’s blog features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for professionals to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The opinions are that of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Physicians Practice or UBM.

When I was in medical school and would go out with my college friends, they would always be surprised that I could tear myself away from studying long enough to go out to dinner, go to a party, or watch a movie. They were expecting me to be buried in books or at the hospital for four years. It became a common refrain, “What are you doing here? Don’t you have to study?” I started to feel self-conscious about being out of the library or anatomy lab, convinced I must not be doing medical school correctly.

Today, one of my patients asked me if I ever get more than two minutes to myself. She’s aware that I have two roles-one clinical and one administrative-and four kids. When I replied that I do take time for myself, she was surprised and somewhat disbelieving. I explained that my to-do list at work and my to-do list at home are so long that I have given up ever completing either one of them. Instead I do what I can and try to let the rest of it go. Confession: I find it hard to let it go.

I’ve written about this previously, but I return to one of the most influential books I’ve read. It has changed how I think about work, rest, family, balance, and personal time. The book, The Power of Full Engagement, outlines how to be your best in all spheres by carefully managing your energy to make sure that you are spiritually, mentally, physically, and socially balanced. The authors make a solid argument for the diminishing quality of what you do at work, at home, or for yourself when you allow your energy to run down in any area of your life. Within medicine, we know this-physiology, biochemistry, and anatomy all teach us the necessity of rest and renewal. 

When I take time for myself (which I do nearly every day), I do not do so to be selfish or because it’s on my to-do list or even because the latest article in a journal or magazine describes the benefits of it. Instead I do it because I know what will happen if I do not. I will get irritable, unproductive, and lose my creativity and resilience. It is self-preservation and a desire to do a great job in all that I do that compels me to seek balance.

I am surrounded by people who make different choices than I do. This could be the medical school classmate that does not take any study breaks or the residency colleague who skips meals in order to do one more thing for one more patient. It can even be the attending physician who stays late to craft the perfect, grammatically-correct note. I cannot criticize those choices-I understand the pressure to do those things. But I also know myself-I will wind down slowly like a spinning top if I do not balance myself. For me, skipping a study session for a movie or reading a book before bed is not a luxury that I only allow myself if I get everything else done. Rather, it’s an essential part of how I manage my energy so that I can get anything done.

Jennifer Frank, MD, is a family physician and physician leader in Northeastern Wisconsin and finds medicine still to be the best gig out there. Married with four kids, she is engaged in intensive study and pursuit of work-life balance.