Work/Life Balance: Fantasy or Reality?

People often say, “You can’t have everything in life.”

I prefer to think the way my mother taught me, which is to say, “You CAN have everything in life, you just can’t have it all at the same time.”

One of the problems we encounter in our culture today where essentially all of our needs are met is that we want everything and we want it all right now. Unfortunately, that’s where our desires meet a harsh reality. Time, money, relationships, and all material possessions are finite. Therefore, we almost always find that we can’t get everything we want at the same time.

Starting from that premise is the key to unlocking the mystery of work/life balance. How do you as a physician work 80+ hours a week at your primary job and still have time for hobbies, interests, family, travel, church, friends, and career advancement?

If you start trying to do the math, you’ll go crazy. 168 hours per week, minus 80 hours of work, minus 56 hours of sleep, minus 7 hours of car travel leaves 25 hours a week. So, if I give 10 to my kids and 10 to my spouse, that leaves 5 for me, but I have to mow the lawn and pay bills and do grocery shopping…

You can see how quickly that could become overwhelming! It’s easy to feel defeated staring at the numbers, but I think that’s the wrong approach.

The truth about work/life balance is that there will always be an imbalance.

The big problem people face is in the mistaken belief that balance necessarily means equality. If you try to balance your work and your life by trying to spend equal time on both, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. There are some careers where that may be possible, but being a physician requires such a huge time commitment that the time spent at work and home will probably never be equal.

So how do you achieve that balance you crave?

As with many conflicts, I think it starts with managing expectations.

If you’re married, you and your spouse should establish expectations for what your time commitments will look like. This will be different in medical school, residency, fellowship, and practice. This may even be different month to month during those periods.

When I was in residency, my wife and I would sit down before each new rotation and look at the new schedule so we could set reasonable expectations. When I was on the inpatient wards, we knew I wouldn’t ever be home before 6PM. When I was on an ICU rotation, I was on every third night call, and she just wouldn’t see me very much that month. Then on an outpatient rotation, we’d make up for it by having date nights and spending more time together.
We continually revise our expectations for each period of our careers so that we are always on the same page and can then work to hit our goals together.

The second key to achieving balance is to establish and then periodically revisit your priorities. For example, during medical school you probably spent an inordinate amount of time at the library or coffee shop studying. In those days, studying had to be your top priority, and fun activities took a back seat. Likewise, you may have hobbies about which you are passionate, but you may have to cut back on those once you have kids.

Establishing priorities is part of good management of expectations.

If you’re starting and growing a new practice, you may have longer hours and more travel than you will in later stages of your career. That’s totally fine! Call a family meeting to tell everyone what to expect. If your kids know that they only get to see you one hour a day during the week, but you’re going to hang out this weekend, it’s something they can look forward to. If they know that your time at work is longer for a short period, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and they can look towards that.

The third thing is to consider ratios. What percentage of your time is spent on work, family, traveling, hobbies, etc.? What do you think is a reasonable percentage for each category? This will differ for everyone depending on the stage of your career, age, and whether you’re married and/or have kids.

Take that 168 hour week and break it down into what percentage of those hours you spend on each activity. If any one category seems way too low or too high based on your pre-established priorities, you know that you need to make some adjustments. This will be an individual choice for everyone, but make the choice intentionally.

Let’s get practical

Here are three practical tips to help you achieve your goals for work/life balance after establishing your priorities, managing expectations, and considering ratios of time spent on different activities.

  1. Be where you are. When you’re at home, be at home. When you’re at work, be at work. Don’t bring work home with you. There are exceptions to this of course, such as being on call, but don’t come home and then retreat to your computer and never interact with your family. Turn off the computer, ignore your email, and just be present.
  2. Schedule your priorities. Be intentional to schedule time for the priorities you’ve established. Sit down with your spouse on a weekly or monthly basis and plan family time on your calendar. It’s like a budget – if you don’t plan it out, time will just disappear.
  3. Turn off your phone! Your smart phone is a time vampire. We spend hours on our phones answering email, responding to social media queries, and texting. When you’re at home, put it down, turn it off, and focus on your family.

Conclusion

The myth of work/life balance lies in the belief that it means equal time for all activities, which simply isn’t consistent with reality. To reach the balance that you crave, spend time establishing and periodically revising your priorities, managing your expectations, and just being present wherever you are. You can’t have everything you want all at the same time, but with some intentional planning, you can have what you want most when you want it most.

Leave a comment below and tell us how YOU achieve work/life balance.

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