Every Minute Counts: Time Management Tips and Tricks for New Doctors

Jean Louise Koff, MD
Instructor of hematology and medical oncology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta

Jean Louise Koff, MD, offers time-management advice for early-career hematologists transitioning from training to faculty. Dr. Koff is an instructor of hematology and medical oncology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. She also is a candidate for a Master of Science in clinical research and a past participant in the American Society of Hematology’s Clinical Research Training Institute.

As hematologists, we strive to be “whole persons” – to provide excellent patient care and develop our careers, while enjoying a fulfilling personal life and prioritizing mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.

However, there are a couple of hard truths that make achieving these goals difficult. There is no “magic recipe” for career and personal fulfillment, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

While seasoned physicians know what to expect from their demanding schedules, younger doctors are facing these types of challenges for the first time. Trainees transitioning to new careers are busy trying to shrink the experience deficit and close the knowledge gap between themselves and senior colleagues. Many new doctors also have young families, so their personal lives can be extra demanding.

We can’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach for happiness, and we can’t add more hours to the day, but we can draw inspiration from those who have lived through these struggles and find what works best for us.

Be Proactive

As obligations start piling up, it’s easy to lose track of them. So, before something slips through the cracks, get organized.

I maintain a running to-do list on my phone because, unlike Post-It notes stuck to my desk, my phone goes where I go. To help me stay on track, I organize my list into short- and long-term goals – and, since I am a clinician-researcher, into what needs to get done in the lab and what needs to get done in the clinic.

I also set aside time to review the tasks for the week ahead and check in regularly with my list. There’s nothing better than marking a task as “complete.”

Along with that to-do list, set up an accessible calendar that’s visible to anyone who helps manage your schedule; this avoids unnecessary questions about your availability. Fill out your calendar with work-related events, but also make sure to schedule time with friends and family so your personal life does not disappear under the weight of work obligations.

Work With Your Natural Schedule

Each of us has our own internal schedule, so work with it, not against it. Identify conditions for peak productivity and plan accordingly.

Some people like to burn the midnight oil, but I’m a morning person. My most productive hours are from 7 to 11 a.m.; I can use that time to conduct research, finish up my notes, write a grant proposal, study for boards, or check off items on my to-do list.

I closely guard this time. I make sure that I’m in a place conducive to working (for me, that’s not at home with my toddler). I also try to minimize disruptions by scheduling meetings during delegated blocks of time so that my day isn’t chopped up and by letting my coworkers know when I am in “emergency-only” contact mode.

Because managing my email inbox can eat up large chunks of time, I also devised a workable reading-and-responding strategy: When I check for new emails, I either respond to them, flag them for follow-up, or delete them. It saves me the hassle of searching for messages and limits the possibility that things will get lost in the shuffle and wind up surprising me hours before a deadline.

Finally, know your bandwidth. As ambitious young doctors eager to prove ourselves, we tend to want to say yes to every project that comes our way, but we need to learn when to say no.

Assemble Your Team

Just like when we were trainees, as new doctors we need to rely on senior faculty members for guidance.

Mentors help us develop expertise in the field, guide us toward defining feasible goals, and serve as lifelines when challenges arise. In addition to finding a mentor who is an expert in the field you’re pursuing, I recommend finding a career-development or work-life mentor whose goals align with yours – and who is modeling the behavior needed to achieve them.

Starting a new position as a faculty member can mean that we have support staff available to us, including administrative assistants, research specialists and technicians, and nurses and advanced practice providers. So, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need to maximize your productivity. This can be part of your contract negotiations. For example, my contract guarantees me a certain level of support staff. When I was getting my flow cytometry research off the ground, I learned that I needed a research technician to help me process samples so that I could focus on applying for grants, writing protocols, and seeing patients. I was able to use start-up funds and grant money to hire that person.

“Be present. Checking
email when you’re
spending time with
your family means
you’re not doing
either thing well.”

Then, ask your personnel for what you need. People aren’t mind-readers, so delegate responsibilities and establish expectations. Communicate your ideal conditions for productivity to the administrative assistant who manages your calendar so he or she can schedule meetings more efficiently.

Finally, take care of your team so they will take care of you. Maintain open lines of communication and schedule time for two-way feedback. Working together is an iterative process where you will increase productivity by ensuring things are running smoothly; you do that by talking with – and listening to – your team.

This advice applies to your personal life, as well. If you have a partner, share responsibilities at home – cooking, cleaning, laundry, caregiving, etc. When you make the transition to faculty, you will likely have the financial means to outsource tasks, such as doing the laundry, that detract from family time. That hour is better spent doing what you are passionate about.

Protect Your Personal Time

Preserving the time spent outside of work is as vital as protecting research time.

If you’re not proactive about setting aside personal time, don’t expect anyone else to do it for you. Take the initiative to schedule both the big and little stuff, from vacations to nights out. Define your boundaries and make them clear to your co-workers. For example, I expect to be home by 6:30 p.m. to have dinner with my family and put my son to bed. I do my best to avoid scheduling meetings or other work obligations after that time.

Another bit of advice that’s easier said than done: be present. Checking email when you’re spending time with your family means you’re not doing either thing well. When you enter that protected personal time, leave your phone behind and sign out your pager if you can.

The term “work-life balance” implies a zero-sum game where one part of your life suffers when you devote time to or succeed in the other. This framing turns “work” and “life” into competing interests. I prefer the concept of “work-life synergy,” because I’ve found that success and gratification in either realm often feeds back positively to the other.

The American Society of Hematology (ASH) created the ASH Trainee Council in 2001 to advocate for the issues and concerns of hematology/oncology trainees, including mentorship, publishing, and funding. The Trainee Council consists of 12 trainees from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, whose primary function is to advise the ASH Committee on Training about issues relevant to the educational needs of hematology trainees, including the planning of events and services for trainees at the ASH annual meeting.

Trainee Council projects and programs include:

Trainee Day at the ASH Annual Meeting
ASH provides a variety of educational and networking opportunities to help trainees make the most of their meeting experience. Activities and services for undergraduates, medical and graduate students, residents, and fellows include didactic and interactive small-group breakout sessions and career-development lunch sessions.

Hematology Career Planner
The ASH Trainee Council created this career development tool to provie timelines for every hematology trainee, whether an MD or PhD.

Grants Clearinghouse
This database of hematology grant opportunities is provided as a service by the ASH Trainee Council to aid trainees in their search for grant information. However, ASH does not endorse any of the information or web links contained in this database and is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Trainees and fellows who join ASH as associate members automatically receive TraineE News in their inbox, a quarterly collection of articles written by and for trainees that is curated by the ASH Trainee Council. Browse articles from the TraineE-News archives.

For more information about the Trainee Council and ASH programs and awards available to early-career hematologists, visit hematology.org/Trainees.

More from ASH Clinical News
Check out our “For Fellows & Trainees” section for exclusive special features and resources for early-career hematologists, including:

  • Tips on navigating the array of careers open to trainees from Leidy Isenalumhe, MD, MS, chair of the 2017-18 Trainee Council
  • An exploration of the wide world of medical education with Hanny Al-Samkari, MD
  • Advice from senior innovators and mentors in hematology and oncology