Make the Most of Your Personal Time: Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Jan 31, 2015

By Faith Hayden, Senior Writer

As a fellow or resident, personal time is your most precious commodity. Since 2003, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has limited resident duty hours to 80 per week, with a 16-hour limit on consecutive hours worked for first-year residents and a 24-hour limit on continuous duty for all other residents. Even with these regulations in place, 80 duty-hours per week is nearly double the average 46.7-hour American workweek. To put these hours in context, once you factor in the recommended 8 hours of sleep nightly, fellows and residents are left with only 4.5 hours of personal time each day to eat, commute, take care of personal responsibilities, and socialize with friends and family.

Although finding extra personal time in your schedule is likely unrealistic, there are ways to maximize the time you have with your loved ones. According to psychiatrist Howard L. Forman, MD, you don’t have to block off a large number of hours with loved ones to make that time meaningful. The quality of time spent is much more important than the quantity.

“If you’re going to have limited amounts of time, which you certainly will, you have to make that time count,” he explained. “You need to be fullyinvested in who you’re with. If you go out to dinner once a week with your spouse, go for a nicer dinner. Have an experience where you are really able to be with each other.”

This means putting away the cell phone and other technologic distractions. In fact, turn off your cell phone if you can. If you’re on call and can’t afford to power down completely, compromise by disabling email notifications and staying off social media.

“We live in a time where we are used to having so much information coming into our minds so quickly that we’re not accustomed to having a conversation with people where we focus completely on them,” Dr. Forman said. “We’re not used to sitting down anymore and really speaking to someone and picking upon the subtlety of that communication.What is your partner telling you with his or her facial expressions and tone? Truly relating to someone is tapping into all of those things.”

Research has shown that happy couples have established rituals connecting them to one another—small daily behaviors that may appear insignificant, but actually have a profound impact on the emotional tenor of the relationship, said Dana Royce Baerger, JD, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University.

Even when there isn’t time in your schedule for a relaxing date night with your partner, daily micro-connections can help facilitate a strong bond over time. “Although people think that love is best demonstrated by grand gestures and ‘big’ moments, the reality is that marriages tend to thrive or devolve on the basis of many small moments, or what researcher John Gottman, PhD, calls ‘sliding door moments,’” Dr. Baerger said. “Dr. Gottman talks about the magic 5 hours a week that, when broken down into very small increments of time, can help enrich and deepen a marriage.”

According to Dr. Gottman’s research, couples ideally should spend:

  • 2 minutes each weekday morning finding out something about their partner’s upcoming day
  • 20 minutes each evening catching up with one another about their days
  • 5 minutes each day expressing gratitude or appreciation for their partner
  • 5 minutes each day touching, holding, or hugging their partner
  • 2 hours each week getting to know one another better—such as time spent talking, playing a board game,or going for a walk

“During the morning rush out the door, you could ask your partner to tell you his or her biggest concern about the upcoming day. You could then make a mental note to return to the topic that evening,” Dr. Baerger explained. “That morning, you might spend 5 minutes sending your partner a loving email or text. That evening, when the two of you see one another again, you could ask about your partner’s day, making sure to raise the concern that he or she discussed in the morning. Add in 5 minutes of cuddling and you’ve made it.”

Of course, there are other relationships within your social circle that need nurturing, such as long-time friendships. The good news, said Dr. Forman, is that these relationships don’t require the same kind of maintenance that romantic partnerships do.

“Great friendships persist,” he said. “They’re strong. Obviously, your friends have emergencies, and your inability to respond to those emergencies may weaken a friendship. If someone is going through a family or personal health crisis, you’ve got to make time for them, just as you would for one of your patients. But in terms of day-to-day socializing, those strong friendships will be there for you when you are able to give more time.”

When you do spend time with friends, Dr. Forman recommends scheduling shared experiences such as an arts performance or movie.

“You’ve given them time where you’re locked away, you’re focused, and you have a shared experience that you can relate to that person with,” he said. “There’s a certain energy that comes from seeing performance art that doesn’t come with other interactions.”

Finally, it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself when work demands more of your time than you’d like. You will have to make sacrifices. There may be times when you have to miss that birthday party or baby shower. Remembering the value of the work you’re doing can help you cope.

“You’re not doing something thatc an wait until the next day or the next week. You’re doing work that’s incredibly important that must be done when it must be done,” Dr. Forman said. “Yes, you are sacrificing, but your patients are experiencing the reward. And hopefully by extension, you can feel a great degree of pride and a great degree of satisfaction in what you’re doing, and that will warm you. That’s the great thing about being in such an important field of medicine like oncology. You can carry that with you.”

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