Veterinary Work-Life Imbalance?

The phrase “work-life integration” has been suggested by some as being a more attainable and appropriate goal rather than work-life balance.

The phrase “work-life balance” is a loaded one. First, it assumes that work and life are separate entities that do not mix. There is also the implication that balancing work and life is possible and desirable. The phrase “work-life integration” has been suggested by some as being a more attainable and appropriate goal. Proponents use the word “integration” to suggest a less dichotomous relationship between work and life.

As an equine vet, it is the latter part of this balance, the “life” part, that I find the most challenging. Being a horse vet is a large part of my identity, and even when I’m not working, I am inextricably tied to that piece of myself. I have many colleagues who feel the same way. To imply that any of us can stop being a vet when we aren’t actively doing farm calls is unrealistic.

However, one of the benefits to ambulatory equine practice is that it can be flexible and allow for both “life” and “work” activities to be scheduled on the same day. Given that work-life balance is a common challenge among vets, this article is also devoted to time management as it relates to the idea of work-life balance or integration.

On any given day, it can feel like your life is being run by everyone but yourself and that your time isn’t your own. One of the first steps to successful time management and finding a little “me” time is to adjust this view. Rather than simply addressing the task or the facet of our life that screams the loudest, we must conscientiously delegate our time to the activities and individuals of our choosing.

As Mike Dolan, writer and entrepreneur, noted on Twitter: “Time isn’t your master; you are.” This includes dedicating time to activities that you find rejuvenating and that support your own wellness.

Where You Spend Time

One of the truths about time management is that you need to spend time to make time. Changing the way you do things is going to require you to invest some time evaluating how things are currently in your life, determine what changes you want to make, and plang for the future. The better the planning, the greater the chance you have of being able to follow through on what you set out to do. It’s also not a one-time deal—each day, week, month, season and year you should set aside some time to decide how you are going to allocate your time and energy.

As you reflect on how to better manage your time, an important step is to determine how you’re currently spending time. Tracking your time is one of the easiest and most powerful things you can do to facilitate effective scheduling and time management! You will gain valuable insight by tracking your time for a week; this will help you understand your “timespending” habits and identify areas where there is room for change. Going forward, logging how you spend your time can help you remain accountable and on track with your plans and intentions.

Once you have an idea of how you’re spending time, try to create some broad categories and calculate how much time you are spending on each. For instance, you could have self-care (e.g., eating, sleeping, bathing), routine work, out-of-hours work, housework, family time and independent time (e.g., hobbies, volunteering, exercise).

From there, you should determine if the way you are spending your time aligns with how you would like to be spending your time.

In order to know whether how we are spending our time is consistent with our priorities and values, we need to first identify our priorities and values.

A simple Google search will display a number of websites with lists of core values. Reading through lists of core values and selecting and writing down five to 10 values that resonate most with you will provide you with a strong framework to help shape how you spend your time.

As writer Anton Chekhov noted, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.”

Where to Spend Your Time

Once you know how you are spending your time and have reflected on whether it’s consistent with how you would ideally like to be spending it, the next step is to start making a plan for how to go forward. We are all familiar with the phrase “My eyes were bigger than my stomach” when we eat more than we should, then feel unwell. That can happen with our commitments, too; we agree to do more than we can reasonably accomplish while maintaining balance.

One way to avoid this is to create a time budget1 and refer to it before you take on any additional commitment or activity. For your time budget, there are three categories: fundamental self-care (e.g., sleeping, eating, bathing), external commitments (e.g., work, relationships and family, commuting) and internal commitments (e.g., hobbies, meditation, exercise). It’s important to be specific and realistic when calculating the time required for what you do on a daily basis. If the sum of these three categories is more than 24 hours, you are in a time deficit. If it is less, then you have a surplus.

What still remains after creating time budgeting and determining your priorities is to make choices that are consistent with these in the moment. We all have a finite supply of willpower and energy, and if we have too many decisions to make on a daily basis, we can wind up making decisions that aren’t consistent with our overall goals. Therefore, minimizing the decisions you need to make each day is important; establish routines and habits that facilitate effective use of your time.

For example, a colleague of mine blocks out the time following early morning breeding calls in her schedule for a workout three times a week. This eliminates the need to reassess whether she has time or not on a daily basis, and it allows her to consistently meet her priority of getting exercise. Another colleague does all her fruit and vegetable preparations on the weekend so it’s easy for her to eat nutritious food during the week.

A mentor once suggested to me that when tempted to respond, “I don’t have time,” to a potential commitment, I should try saying, “It’s not a priority.” This thought exercise has helped me recognize when I am making a decision that goes against what I know my values and priorities to be. In the moment, it can be difficult to say “no” to new opportunities or experiences, whether it is because you don’t want to let someone else down or because you genuinely want to do it.

Unfortunately, there are going to be things in life that you want to do but can’t because they just don’t fit with your other commitments.

Psychological Distance

Another idea that can be used to aide decision-making is the concept of psychological distance.2 It helps explain why an idea or commitment can feel manageable initially, then feel overwhelming later on.

Psychological distance refers to the gap between our thoughts about an anticipated experience and the experience itself. An article in the Harvard Business Review defined it this way: Psychological distances are the “gaps between yourself and other people (social distance), the present and the future (temporal distance), your physical location and faraway places (spatial distance), or imagining something and experiencing it (experiential distance).”

When psychological distance is large, things seem more abstract, and the desirability of the event or activity is heightened. However, when the distance is small, the feasibility and concrete nature of the task weigh more heavily on us. For example, you might have said “yes” to giving a talk on horse conformation to the local 4-H group three months ago, but as the time draws near, you are regretting that commitment because you are so busy.

Temporal distance (measured from the present to the future) and experiential distance (the difference between experiencing something yourself and imaging it) can impact our decisions and how we manage our time. Knowing that a large psychological distance can distort our assessment of a situation is helpful, because then we can try to reduce our psychological distance and make decisions from a place of knowledge.

Psychological distance can be reduced by thoroughly investigating what specific tasks would be involved or estimating how many hours a project would take. Consulting a colleague who has been in a similar position can also provide valuable insight.

Take-Home Message

Work-life balance and time management are ultimately about decisions. A favorite axiom of mine is: “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” You want more time for “life”? Work less. Simple, yes; but it’s not easy. Balance can be achieved over time (years or decades). At the very least, trying to achieve balance might help you be happy with your decisions when you’re looking back.


1. Saunders, EG. A formula to stop overcommitting your time. Harvard Business Review, 2015.

2. Hamiton, R. Bridging psychological distance. Harvard Business Review, 2015. 

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