THE BLOG

The Difference: Time Off vs. Work-Life Balance

12/23/2013 11:20 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2014

Work-life balance is more than just taking time off or going on vacation. If it feels like you are drowning at work, you need way more than a few breaths at the surface to give yourself any kind of meaningful recovery.

Here are three keys to using time off, holidays and vacation to recharge yourself in ways that will make a big difference. These are keys to actually creating work-life balance in your time away from work. Use these to ensure you head back to your job authentically rejuvenated and in a better place than when you punched out.

I've tested all of these in my own life and with hundreds of coaching clients suffering from physician burnout. These tools work for non-physicians as well and now is the perfect time to try them out. In the next couple of weeks you are likely to get at least a couple of days off, no matter what work you do.

1) Your Boundary Ritual
A boundary ritual is a simple and specific mindfulness exercise you perform at the "boundary" between work and home. Don't freak here, there is no meditation required and you don't have to be able to sit in the lotus position. Thank heavens.

Have you ever noticed you come home and are still thinking about work and patients and are stuck in your to-do list? It happens to all of us all the time. For doctors, It is part of our physician conditioning. We learn how to be workaholic, superhero, perfectionists, but no one ever showed us the off switch at any point in our training.

Your boundary ritual is that off switch on our physician programming. It helps you come all the way home and take your doctor hat all the way off. The perfect example of a boundary ritual comes from someone you probably know well already.

Mr. Rogers from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood on PBS.

We don't know what Mr. Rogers life is like before he comes in the door and starts the show, but just remember what he did first every single time. Putting on his zip-up cardigan and slippers made him the Mr. Rogers we all know and love. That is a boundary ritual.

What is your boundary ritual? What do you do that reminds you to come all the way home?

Here's why this is so important.

If you don't come all the way home and a piece of your mind stays on the gerbil wheel back in the office, two very important things happen that increase your risk of physician burnout.
-- You can't be completely present with your family (the one thing they want most of all).
-- You can't recharge your energetic bank accounts because you are still being drained by your thoughts of work.

Keys to an effective boundary ritual.
Your intention is number one. If your intention is to let go of the doctor and become simply you -- the spouse you, the parent you, all the other non-physician roles you play -- then you can't do a boundary ritual wrong.

Physical is memorable. So I strongly advise you do some action as part of your boundary ritual.

Here are some examples:
Take cleansing breaths triggered by any one of a number of steps in your trip from work to home:
-- Putting the key in the ignition of your car
-- Turning your car off or opening the car door at home
-- Opening the front door

Other Actions
-- Listen to special music or chant on the car ride home
-- Change your clothes when you get home, just like Mr. Rogers
-- Take a shower
-- Take out your contacts and put your glasses on
-- Work out
-- Take the dog for a walk

What is your boundary ritual?

Note:
Be prepared to do it again and again -- especially the cleansing breaths -- whenever you notice your mind wandering back to thoughts of work. Your mind will do this from time to time. It is not a sign that something is wrong. It is just what the mind does. When you notice work thoughts and worries distracting you from your vacation, just:
-- Breathe
-- Release those thoughts
-- And come back to what is right in front of you right now

2) Turn Your Electronics Off
Have you ever been out to dinner and seen whole groups of people sitting at the same table, each silently staring into the glowing screen of their cell phone and madly texting? Typically these groups are younger people (I am 55), however, the worst addicts to technology in health care are physicians.

We trade our sanity for 24/7 connection to our work. It used to be you could hand the beeper to a colleague and be off once in a while. Those days are long gone, however every mobile device does have an off switch!

You know you are hooked when you can't leave your email unchecked for more than 10 minutes or find it impossible to sit still if your phone is -- heaven forbid -- turned off.

You are not your phone. You are not your email. In fact email, texts and constant Internet connections are the #1 enemy of mindfulness, presence, quality time with your family and your own ability to recharge when you are home.

Once you have taken your doctor hat off with your boundary ritual (no matter how many times you have to breathe) don't blow it all to smithereens by staying connected to your mobile device.

If you are off work, then turn your electronics off.

3) Spend "Quality Time" With the People You Love
One of the primary symptoms of burnout in any profession, is compassion fatigue. Instead of empathy and compassion for our patients/clients we become cynical, sarcastic and feel put upon by their complaints. There is a very simple reason this happens.

Inside all of us there are a set of energetic bank accounts. One of them is your emotional energy account.
-- You fill this account by spending quality time with your loved ones and getting your emotional needs met.
-- You draw on this account when you share empathy and compassion with your family, patients and staff.

The mathematics of empathy are very simple. You can't give what you haven't got.

If you are not getting your emotional needs met, your emotional energy account is tapped out and you have nothing to give.

So what is "quality time?" Here is my definition:

When you are able to give a person you love your undivided attention for an amount of time that feels good to both of you.

Two keys to being able to give your family and loved ones your undivided attention are:
-- Your boundary ritual -- so you are all the way home.
-- Turning off your electronics (and them turning off theirs), so you are not distracted.

Here is who will help you fill your emotional energy account.

When you think about the people who you love and are most important to you. For which people does it feel like you haven't seen enough of them lately?

I know your list might be long here. All that means is it's time to get out your calendar, give them a call and set up a date. I advise you to start with your significant other.

These three steps are essential to transforming simple time off, holidays and vacations into meaningful life balance for doctors and other busy people. They are keys to recharging your energetic bank accounts when you are not at work and preventing physician burnout. We have both Christmas and New Year's in mid-week, coming up very soon. Both are great opportunities to practice these three core work-life balance skills for doctors.

I encourage you to get started today and always remember to practice, because practice makes better.

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Dike Drummond, M.D., is a family physician, executive coach and creator of the Burnout Prevention Matrix Report with over 117 ways doctors and healthcare organizations can work together to prevent physician burnout. He provides stress management, burnout prevention and leadership development services to physicians through his website, TheHappyMD.com.