How can I quit working when there’s still so much left to do?
This is a question I used to ask myself often. As the work day should have been wrapping up, there were still unread emails in my inbox and unanswered voicemail messages, not to mention the list of unchecked boxes on my to-do list.
It feels like there was a time when I could feel a sense of satisfaction that I’d checked everything off my list and neatly wrapped up the day. With the advances of digital technology over the last decade, this is no longer the case.
When the electronic health record was being introduced, I was told that it would save time and create a more efficient workflow. This was far from the reality that me and my colleagues experienced.
After transitioning to a 9-5 corporate position, I quickly learned that the problem was not exclusive to medicine. After a honeymoon period during my initial transition, work creep began to grow and spread. Landing in overwhelm became a more frequent occurrence and fueled the need to work longer days and some weekends.
Just like in medicine, I began to long for holidays, cancelled appointments and vacation days as an opportunity to “catch up”. Fortunately, my tolerance for working this way long-term was zero.
I sought solutions from time management and productivity resources, focused on learning how to master the concepts of prioritization and inbox zero. I believed that if I could just find the right strategy, then all my problems would be solved.
While I was working on figuring out a more sane approach to work, I heard an episode of The Life Coach School podcast where Brooke Castillo was talking about overworking as a form of buffering.
Having worked for years in a pediatric obesity clinic, I understood the concept of buffering with food...eating in the absence of hunger, usually to avoid experiencing uncomfortable emotions. But, I had never heard it applied to working.
As I listened, I began to see for the first time how I could be using work to avoid dealing with feelings I didn’t want to feel. Staying busy kept me from having to focus on thoughts of losing loved ones prematurely...of worrying about the path my son was taking...of finding all the ways in which I was falling short of my goals to prioritize my health by consistently eating well, exercising regularly, hydrating and getting adequate sleep and rest.
For those of us who are in service oriented fields, overworking can be insidious and feel justified. I just need to check email. I’m just going to finish up this one thing and then I’ll shut down for the day. How many times have you picked up the phone to check email and got sucked in for way more time than you’d planned?
Now, I can hear some of you saying, but I can’t control my clinic or call schedule. I have to work long hours in the hospital. I’m not talking about this type of work. I’m talking about occupying yourself with work to keep busy. Work that could wait until the next work day. You’ll know the difference by the way it feels.
For those of us who are overachievers (you know who you are), there is a drive that propels us to work hard. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. It’s often what helped us achieve our success. But, if we’e not careful, we can move into an extreme end of the range where we are working in such a way that is not sustainable and threatens our health and well-being.
Working is familiar. Those of us who are physicians have been trained to work long and grueling hours. This shift our perspective of what is “normal”. It makes it easier for us to work harder and longer after training ends. When life brings us challenges that we think are difficult, it generates emotions that are uncomfortable, that most of us don’t want to feel. So we default to work to stave off those thoughts and feelings. Staying busy protects us from our feelings...or so we think.
In the long term, we are suffering unnecessarily because we are not addressing these issues. In addition to overworking, we may numb out with substances, overeating, overspending and/or over drinking. These are all ways of avoiding negative emotion. One of the problems with this defense mechanism is that you can’t selectively numb your feelings. When you avoid the negative emotions you’re also not fully experiencing the range of positive emotions available. We are not truly experiencing the fullness of our lives.
So, how do we stop overworking?
Here are a few suggestions:
I have used each of the above strategies to help me on my own journey, in addition to coaching and therapy. I consider my coach and my therapist as a part of my inner circle success team.
The return on investment has been priceless. The photo above was taken from my recent trip to Kauai with my wife where we were both able to completely unplug from work and spend quality time with each other and ourselves.
I plan to write more on this topic of overworking as I’m finding through conversations with physicians and other professionals that this is a more common issue than I originally thought.
If you have a specific trigger or strategy that you’d like me to write about, please send me a personal note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you are a physician who would like to be a part of a community talking about issues like this, I invite you to join The Physician Path Reimagined.
The Physician Career Path Reimagined
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