Time Management to Maximize Your Day
How to make the most of your day in the lab
Sanam Husain | | Opinion
Time management is a crucial factor not just in physicians’ performance, but also their wellbeing. So why is it so uncommon to teach this skill in residency training – or at any career stage? Although there is no lack of information on increasing productivity and efficiency in various industries, advice for physicians is hard to find – and specific tips for pathologists are practically nonexistent. Pathologists are generally considered to have higher job satisfaction and be at lower risk of burnout, but increasing workloads, shorter turnaround time requirements, inadequate staffing, and increased teaching and research expectations are changing that paradigm. As demands on our time grow, we must assess our workdays and look for areas we can modify to increase productivity, improve performance, decrease stress, and provide work-life balance for a fulfilling career.
The average work week consists of 168 hours – not an insignificant amount of time. It may be easier said than done, but adjusting our perspectives – and our habits – can greatly enhance productivity. How do we achieve this?
Prioritize your tasks.
Applying the “triage” concept will help you identify the biopsies and large resections that should be reviewed first. Identifying cases that are urgent at the beginning of sign-out is key to making a noticeable impact in patient care. When clinicians rounding on patients have biopsy results available, they can select the best possible treatment plan for the patient.
Compartmentalize your time.
Designating time slots for sign-out, resident teaching, case consultations, and administrative tasks is crucial. “Time boxing” helps streamline fragmented days – and fewer sign-out interruptions means greater diagnostic accuracy and fewer typographical errors. The Pomodoro technique, which involves working continuously on a task for 25 minutes and then breaking for five minutes, can be applied to any task and can be modified to suit the situation (for instance, with longer working times or extended breaks). Using such techniques can decrease the cerebral and visual fatigue pathologists may experience in a typical workday.
Studies have demonstrated up to a 40 percent decrease in efficiency when attention is split between tasks. Laser-sharp focus on a case will increase diagnostic accuracy, decrease errors, and improve turnaround times.
Eliminating all distractions and focusing on histologic patterns is a vital skill. Entering a state of hyperfocus, or “flow,” can facilitate quick and accurate diagnoses. Reduce interruptions by closing your office door or posting a sign – try “Sign-Out In Progress” or “Do Not Disturb.”
Set time limits.
To improve turnaround times, keep track of how much time is spent on individual cases. Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available, so a complex resection case may take hours if you are not mindful of time. On the other hand, if you decide to complete a case in 90 minutes, you will give it your undivided attention and – unless further workup is required – you will succeed. Just like surgeons have designated times in the operating room and internists have time limits on each patient encounter, pathologists can delineate time periods in which they expect to complete each case. For example, a tray of uncomplicated gastrointestinal biopsies will be completed in X amount of time depending on the experience and expertise of the pathologist and on the nature of the cases.
Reviewing service assignments, teaching responsibilities, and meetings before the work week starts can give a good overview of what to expect from the week. You may want to write tasks in a planner or use software to outline your priorities. For lighter weeks with less clinical work, you can plan to catch up on administrative tasks, work on research projects, develop teaching materials, assemble presentations for upcoming meetings, or read recent literature. Designing and implementing a plan can give you a sense of control and decrease feelings of overwhelm.
Eliminate wasted time.
Audit your usual workday to identify time-wasting activities – for instance, frequent email checks, a simple activity that can consume far more time than expected.
End the day right.
Productivity tips typically include starting the day right – but how it ends has a big impact on overall wellbeing. Wrapping up the day with the knowledge that all important cases are taken care of, and perhaps quickly auditing your pending cases, can yield a sense of gratification that combats physical and mental fatigue. Identifying the first case to be reviewed the next morning is a helpful practice that will give you a sense of control over the following day.
Taking restful breaks during the workday can greatly increase productivity. A nutritious lunch, walking, quick stretches in the office, and connecting with colleagues (and having meaningful conversations) can all decrease fatigue and help you avoid the classic afternoon slump.
One of the best ways to increase productivity is to rest and recuperate. Relaxation through music, reading, socializing, or exercise can tremendously boost productivity. There should be no guilt in taking time off to restore mental, physical, and emotional energy. Carving out time in the evenings and weekends for activities that bring joy and relaxation can do wonders for tired eyes and minds.
Last, but not least, remember that you are not on this journey alone. To improve time management and wellbeing, these efforts must be both personal and management-driven – and they should be implemented at every stage of a pathologist’s career, from training to retirement.