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It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Developing Healthy Habits for a Sustainable Career

Marchion Hinton
Marchion Hinton

Marchion Hinton, P.h.D., LP
Associate Program Director
Behavioral Science Co-Director
Family Medicine Residency Program
Hennepin County Medical Center

 

There are many competing priorities to juggle throughout any given work day: documenting patient encounters, supervision responsibilities, fighting imposter syndrome. Managing the full list of responsibilities and pressures with finite resources can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion. We know that healthy habits inspire healthy lifestyles and many of us are in the process of establishing work habits that will prepare us for a sustainable career.

The following ideas were gathered from various resources over the years and/or recommended by seasoned professionals. None in isolation is necessarily a novel revelation, but each has uniquely contributed to my improved professional health and well-being when implemented with intentionality.

  1. Establish boundaries.

Does your position require that you are available 24 hours per day? If not, are you able to turn work “off” and devote specified time, energy, and emotional faculties to non-work activities? A consistent recommendation I received upon starting my career was to establish healthy expectations with coworkers regarding my hours of availability. Though I occasionally choose to work in the evenings and on the weekends, I have decided that my primary work correspondences will take place during business hours so that there is not an inadvertent expectation that work takes precedence outside working hours. It’s easy for one “quick” email response to lead to a chain of email replies at the expense of discussion time with loved ones at the dinner table. Consider what type of time boundary works best for you, your work, and your personal obligations.

Another form of boundary may be deciding your primary form of communication with colleagues. I prefer work-related communication to occur via work-sanctioned media (work email, office phone, pager, electronic medical record) versus via text messages. This style of compartmentalization provides a sense of control over how and when I devote responsibility to personal matters during the workday as well as how and when I devote responsibility to work-matters during evenings and weekends. Given the increased reliance on cell phones for work duties, this isn’t always an absolute solution. Flexibility is needed based on your specific roles and responsibilities. In fact, some prefer to centralize all communication to their smartphones for ease of access. Find what works best for you and your role and put it into action with intentionality.

  1. Turn off unneeded electronic notifications.

In our technologically-advanced society, we have ready access to nearly everyone and everything at any moment in time. The abundance of information can be overwhelming! Our smartphones and smartwatches are really good at stealing our attention and inducing fear that we’re missing out on something special. Technology has led to wonderful conveniences, but can be a source of accumulative stress when trying to shift attention back to the original task after an interruption.

One relatively small action with large stress-relieving effects is turning off the visual and auditory notifications signaling a new email on my work computer. This change led to less interruptions and improved efficiency and focus. Do you have unneeded electronic alerts that are serving more as distractions or interruptions than helpful notifications? Consider taking inventory of possible undesired distractions (e.g., auditory email alerts, buzzing smartwatch with social media updates, notifications with updated sports scores).

  1. Seek out mentorship.

During an exercise at a conference, seasoned faculty shared written tips for those of us new to our roles. One anonymous educator wrote, “You need support, no matter how strong you are. Mentors are not a luxury- they are a necessity!”

Whether formal or informal, these professional connections provide safety to share ideas and be vulnerable. Sometimes a mentor may be a trusted coworker within your organization who understands the day-to-day work. Or, a mentor might be a respected colleague outside your office who could bring a neutral perspective. You might also consider participating in early career workshops, fellowship trainings, or even developing a small peer-support group which could help forge relationships and possible mentorships. Once you’ve identified a mentor, be sure to carve out specific time to connect.

  1. Embrace opportunities to learn from diverse groups.

Our family medicine residents teach a lesson to second and third grade students at a local elementary school during their community medicine rotation. During the debrief following the lesson, I ask the resident, “What did you learn from the students today?” It’s an interesting, humbling question that quickly shifts the teacher into the student role, with the “teacher” being a group of 8-9 year olds! In what ways have you been enriched by conversing with individuals with differing perspectives?

We are all on a personal journey towards embracing cultural humility and uncovering biases and fears. Working independently to better understand our own lived experiences and the experiences of others is a critical step in the journey of appreciating diversity among us. Consider reading books that offer stimulating and diverse perspectives. (Sample authors: John Howard Griffin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Anne Fadiman, Tara Westover, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Michelle Alexander, Robin DiAngelo, Tracy Kidder, to name a few.) Find journal articles, listen to podcasts, or watch Netflix documentaries that help expand your awareness. Or, consider self-exploration of implicit preferences then write a personal reflection about the experience (Harvard Implicit Associate Test is available online: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html).

Derald Wing Sue (2015) also encourages learning directly from healthy representatives of diverse communities through experiential activity. (Note: learning from others is complementary to, not instead of, independent work.) “Healthy representatives” may consist of diverse perspectives within your own community and/or branching out to learn from other communities. For example, discussions about privilege may generate different thoughts depending upon whether the group is majority-dominant, minority-dominant, or a mixed group since different lived experiences guide the lens through which we all notice privilege. Similarly, a discussion about treating chronic pain may generate different ideas depending on whether the group composition consists of all psychologists, mostly physicians, or an interdisciplinary group. One group composition is not better than another, but each is uniquely enriching and worth engaging. To put Sue’s experiential recommendation into action, consider attending local community events with friends or colleagues. Try attending a grand rounds presentation hosted by a different specialty. Consider consulting with a trusted peer from a different demographic for ideas how to navigate negotiations with an employer.

  1. Invest in yourself.

Financial advisors suggest that a certain percentage of our earnings go towards personal savings in preparing for our future. A colleague reminded me the importance of generalizing this same principle to my career. Consider the following examples: A colleague received approval to teach a lecture to pharmacy students one time yearly, which fostered collaboration across disciplines and was personally invigorating for my colleague. Or, my most recent conference presentation submission is related to a topic I’ve been thinking about for quite a while but have not had the opportunity to explore until now. In pursuing this, I get to add to my CV while exploring a concept I find intriguing. Another investment strategy is using my PTO/vacation benefit to allow time for restoration. I now think about my PTO benefit as an extension of my employer-based health insurance in the form of preventative care and sometimes even intervention for prolonged stress.

Is there a specialized training that would complement your skillsets? Is there a committee that is particularly appealing? Are there benefits offered at your organization that would serve as an investment into your personal health and wellness? Consider how you can apply this investment principle for your current and future work.

Developing healthy habits early on helps prepare us for a sustainable career. We all have differing needs. Find the strategies that work best for your type of work and support your well-being.

Reference

Sue, D. W. (2016). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.