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Think there’s nothing you can do about frequent interruptions and urgent requests for your time? Think again.

Fam Pract Manag. 2001;8(7):60

You can’t really put a dollar value on your time. Oh, sure, you can use your annual salary to calculate what an hour of your time might be worth. But that calculation doesn’t take into account that time is an intangible and very personal resource. How you spend your time speaks clearly about who you are and what you value. Instead of wishing you had more of it, why not try to better protect the time you’ve got. Here’s how:

Learn to say no

Some of the biggest time wasters you probably face each day are interruptions. As physicians, you know that many interruptions are a natural and necessary part of what you do. It’s unrealistic to think they can be eliminated altogether in the real world of health care, family and humankind. But you can learn to deal with interruptions more effectively.

Interruptions, whether big or small, are essentially challenges to your current set of priorities. While some of these challenges may be worth doing, others may not and will require that you learn to say no. For example, perhaps you’re feeling a little burned out and have promised yourself that you’re going to work one day less per month. That day just happens to be the same day the hospital strategic planning committee meets and you’ve just been asked to serve on it. Only you can decide the priorities that are most important. If time off is your current priority, just say to the planning committee, “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t be on the committee this year.” It’s all you need to say.

Saying no is most effective when you have a resounding “yes” behind it. In this case, “Yes, I’m going take a day off!” (For more about saying no, see “Five Ways to Say ‘No’ Effectively,” FPM, July/August 1998, page 71.)

Determine what’s really urgent

Another common threat to your time is the increased sense of urgency attached to almost everything in your professional and personal life. Does “Doctor, we need this immediately” sound familiar to you? Responding to every urgent request with equal urgency is guaranteed to upset your equilibrium. So instead of putting everything else aside to address an urgent request, pause and ask a few questions first, such as “Does this need to be done at all?” “Does this really need to be done immediately?” and “Does this need to be done immediately by me?” You’ll find that some requests truly will require your immediate response. Others won’t. For those that don’t, negotiate a time frame with the requester so that you can respond in your own time.

Prevent future interruptions

Almost everyone you agree to do something for will eventually ask you two questions: “How are you going to do it?” and “When will you have it done?” If you make a habit of answering these questions up front (even when they’re not asked), you’ll find yourself subjected to fewer interruptions as you do the work. It also helps to give updates and provide people with a specific timetable. For example, “I’ll have the report to you by Friday at 4 p.m. after I double-check the figures and consult with Dave, but I’ll give you an update on Wednesday.” People who know exactly what to expect and when to expect it are less likely to call or e-mail you “just to check” on your progress, giving you more time to work uninterrupted.

If you need to negotiate a deadline, promising greater benefits to someone who agrees to wait a little longer may do the trick. Saying, “If you can give me until Monday, you’ll have the extra research I know you could use,” can be very enticing and may buy you the extra time you need.

The next time someone asks you to push their priority to the top of your priority list, I hope you’ll try using one of the techniques I’ve mentioned here. Learning to protect your time can feel uncomfortable at first, especially for busy physicians who spend their days helping others. But it may also be one of the healthiest things you do for yourself this year.

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Copyright © 2001 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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