Do you remember when starting out in equine practice how the pager—or in today’s world, the smart phone— seemed like a nifty device that held the promise of “hands-on experience” with ample adventures and learning?
It was a time when the excitement and novelty of opportunities to minister to horses (and clients) in need provided fulfillment. There you were, finally, after all those years of schooling, getting to work in the field in your chosen profession. But with the progression of time, as one decade turns into two or three, the 24 x 7 care became less enchanting and more wearing on body and soul.
So much of a veterinarian’s professional life is spent looking after other peoples’ problems and animals that there often isn’t time to look after one’s self. Most horse owners expect their vets to be available around the clock, day and night. In many areas of the country, this means that you are likely to be working seven days a week and most hours of the day and evening to accommodate emergencies on top of routine appointments.
Where in this reality is there time to have a life?
To resolve the dilemma of 60-90 hour work weeks, one strategy that works for many is to join a group practice so on-call time is staggered between several practitioners. But for those who remain solo practitioners, it is important to identify other means to provide responsible care to the horses and clients without risking burnout. Typically, the solution to this problem lies in sharing emergency work among other local practitioners. This isn’t always possible or practical, but it is a starting point.
The equine veterinarian’s time and resources are being pulled from every direction—by clients needing attention, by family deserving attention, by professional organizations requesting attention, and by ourselves, trying to live up to expectations of personal performance. Just as you set goals in developing your career and professional expertise, why not set goals in living your life apart from work?
Setting Life Goals
Setting goals is helpful, but it also is important to periodically review and examine those goals and see how well you are measuring up to your objectives. It often helps to write down your goals so you can refer back to them, and also make notations on how well you are living up to them along with new ideas of how to realize these goals. For some, a journal might help keep you on track.
In addition, set realistic expectations for yourself so you don’t make it too onerous to attain those goals. Prioritize your goals and re-prioritize frequently. Start with little steps and build from there. For example, maybe all you can eke out initially is 10-15 minutes a day for yourself. Once you develop a habit of doing this, you can slowly build on the time you devote to your own pursuits.
How do you start to find that extra time in your busy days and nights? The answer is to set limits and stick with them. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
In the best-case scenario, each practitioner develops a personal tool to be able to withstand the stress and challenges of juggling too many obligations with not enough hours in the day. Some of these “tools” may simply be a form of gamesmanship that keeps your interest whetted while going about the more mundane parts of your work day. You might get a thrill by trying to beat your daily appointment schedule or improving scheduling efficiency by organizing a day’s appointments with clients in the same geographic area. Perhaps you’ll resort to ironic humor in dealing with crises, or have someone accompany you in the truck between farm calls to provide assistance and/or conversation. But a tool that works even more effectively is to simply set limits and learn to say “No.”
This short and simple word is often difficult to say. It’s a good thing that it’s a simple sound to make because it takes an ability and strength of character to say “No” and to make it stick. Consider also that you needn’t qualify to clients the reasons why you can’t accommodate their demands at every instance. You can be friendly and accessible—and be of real value to clients—without “enabling” them to take advantage of your “handson” attitude.
If you’re a practitioner who prides yourself on accessibility, there are ways to set limits by providing alternatives to client requests and demands. Information handouts are helpful, along with alternative phone contacts. Educational seminars you give can highlight the nature of true emergencies and how these differ from situations that can wait until the next day’s business hours. And remember not to overbook your day’s schedule so you can accommodate time for emergencies or better yet, take some time out for yourself.
Take Time Out
Being a veterinarian implies some degree of Type A personality, with self expectations that “I can do it all.” The simple truth is: We can’t! No one can perform 24×7 day after day, month after month, year after year. Accept this fact without guilt. There has to be time out to refuel and reconsider life.
Without a time out from work, there isn’t likely to be a life balance, and burnout is looming on the horizon. So it’s up to you to make this happen. Your clients won’t do it for you! Your family and friends may want to help, but often can’t figure out how.
Time out doesn’t just mean that you aren’t actively seeing horses or clients or dealing with issues in the clinic. It means that your mind is focused elsewhere—on your family, your friends, your hobbies, or focused on you. In order to really revel in non-work activities, it takes a concerted effort to leave work behind. This includes parking your phone, your tablet and your computer. The current high-tech era has us completely tied at the hip to our electronic communication devices. It takes a lot of willpower to turn them off or, at the very least, not to look at them every few minutes. When taking time out, set a mental schedule for checking messages once or twice a day, and stick to your schedule.
Put technology to work for you rather than allowing it to overwhelm you. Use it to improve organization of your work and personal time. Try not to micromanage everyone, including yourself. Respond to emails with brevity so you remain in touch without it consuming your time. Or, don’t answer anything superfluous that isn’t relevant to your daily objectives. When you take time out for more than a few hours, take advantage of the “I’m away” email and voice messages so no one is expecting an immediate answer.
Exercise and Eat Well!
Exercise is an important component of balancing your life, as not only can it be fun, it helps to rejuvenate body and spirit and wake up your inner juices. It improves your alertness and spices up your days. Try to stick to some kind of schedule so you build fitness and strength and keep the endorphin levels high.
Some vets like to work out early in the morning before starting the day’s work schedule. For an equine practitioner, this may be the only way to ensure that you’ll have exercise time since we all know how appointments and work obligations never really end at dinner time.
Eat well to fuel your physical output at work and in exercise. Treat yourself to special foods and drink, and use those instances to celebrate and share time with family or friends, or just to marvel in alone time by yourself. Carry healthy snacks and water in your practice vehicle or stashed in your desk at the clinic. Nuts offer great nutrition that is easy to carry and eat for on-the-go practitioners.
Work and exercise are all physically demanding activities. Remember to take time out to truly relax and let your body rest. Read a book, watch a movie or eat a regular, sit-down meal with family or friends. Try yoga or meditation. Go for a walk in the woods or on the beach. Pursue a hobby such as music, carpentry, bird-watching, gardening or writing, or you might even take time to ride your own horse. The objective is to stop the brain chatter and focus on a quiet task. This will recharge your batteries and give your life more meaning.
On that note, try to disperse errands and household tasks (cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping) throughout the week rather than accumulating them into a pile that has to be done on your day off. Spending your free day doing only errands cuts into the life balance part of your equation. Outsource any possible chores—cleaning, for example—and discard tasks that aren’t important or relevant. In general, eliminate anything from your life that doesn’t add value.
When looking to redefine your life as more than being a workaholic, look for all the ways you can accomplish this rather than dwelling on all the reasons why it isn’t possible. Similarly, disassociate from people and situations that affect you negatively or tend to hold you back.
When you applied to veterinary school, it was a matter of hard work and perseverance: “I will get in.” When you studied through vet school, you figured out ways to do well in your courses and learn as much as possible. The same went when you took the National and State Boards. And, while job seeking, no doubt you were ultra-positive in selling yourself to your prospective employer.
So why is it any different in setting your personal-life objectives while pursuing your career? Thinking positive is often the first step in making something happen.
If you are so wedded to your work that you can’t figure out how to make time for yourself and construct some balance between work and living, then it might be a good idea to consult a professional who can assist you in this goal.
Ultimately, making time for yourself and balancing your life with work will bring you a fresher perspective and enable you to be a better and more compassionate practitioner in addition to being a better spouse, parent, son or daughter, and friend.