Every Hour Counts, So Start Wasting Time | Jennifer Mueller, MD, FACOG
On New Year’s Eve a few years ago, I set an intention to slow my life down. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what this actually meant but the notion of slowing down resonated with me. I think it grew from the summer I graduated from fellowship. My husband and I bought an old RV, packed-up our two kids and dog into it for the summer and crisscrossed the United States. Life went from the familiar hectic pace to totally relaxed overnight.*
I had my kids in medical school and began residency with a 4-year-old and 1-year-old. I remember the days leading up to July 1 of my intern year agonizing about my work/life balance. I had some daunting work hours ahead of me. How would I make this work?
So, I did some napkin math. I tallied up all the hours in a 7-day week (168), subtracted out my anticipated intern work hours (80 plus 10 commuting), and sleep (42 if at 6 hours a night). The hours leftover (36) was the magic number of hours I had left over, every hour would count.
This strategy worked though residency and fellowship. I used this time-as-currency approach to get through one of the busiest periods of my life. I was at the soccer games, the parent teacher meetings, the weekend family outings, sang the good night songs, made the birthday cakes, and was at the major family events. Even if I was exhausted, or cranky, or needed alone time, I just made it work.
This 8-year period of my life laid tracks that became deeply ingrained habits. I used time with such a ruthless efficiency that I now see everything in my life had gradually become a series of boxes to check. The seeds of good intention planted all those years ago had morphed me into someone with an unhealthy relationship with time. It was a strain for everyone. I had trouble discerning happiness and fulfillment for myself. I was too busy trying to get everything done. I was burning out.
Many of us are mentored and modeled a ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle. It is the hidden curriculum of our training, those little pearls that maximize the use of time sends the message that time is our scarce resource.
That New Year’s Eve, I realized that time was not the scarce resource, my wellness was. I knew I needed to slow down, and the path to do this was to give myself permission to “waste time”.
Not surprisingly as I set my ‘slow down intention’ in motion and built ‘wasting time’ into my life, I had a very judgmental inner voice critiquing every decision.
You’re wasting time! This is taking too long! You’ll suffer later for this!
Once I gave myself permission to slow down, I really noticed how many things were judged as a waste of time. A colleague’s birthday lunch, a chat in the hallway, even if my kids wanted to chat when I was working on clinic notes. Over time, my discomfort with wasting time has lessened and with practice, I am better at it. My inner dialogue has also shifted.
You have enough time for this. This is important. Your checklist can change.
All these thoughts are laying new tracks for me though I’m still a work in progress. Living slow requires a lot of focus and practice for me.
This change in perspective gives me ears that really hear how people are doing when I ask them. I have more meaningful and connected conversations. I give myself permission to rest when I’m tired. I spend my slow time doing things that feel great like baking extravagant desserts or creative embroidery projects. I also spend my time doing things that don’t sound cool at all, like sitting alone doing nothing in particular, weeding my garden, reading. These activities also help me reset, unwind, and refocus.
I won’t say slowing down is the only road to wellness, that would oversimplify the complex footwork that is required to handle the many special roles and relationships we tend to. It can be a start though. Life has not magically become different day to day; I still have the same stressors and daily circumstances to navigate. However, what has changed is efficiency and productivity are not my only goals. I remember the gifts that come when I slow down.
Ralph Simone Slow down to go faster 2020
Kimi Werner When you feel the need to speed up, slow down 2014
Brene Brown Surge capacity and play as an energy source 2020 (start at minute 8)
Stephen Dubner Nap time for everyone! (Ep 468) 2021
*A Blog excerpt from my family’s RV Summer Trip
Jennifer Mueller, MD, FACOG, is an Assistant Attending Surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY.