Like most of my elementary school peers, what I liked best about school was recess. I was a very good student, so the classes didn’t really bother me, but I must confess that, as the time approached for our playground romps, it never failed to excite me. I loved the sense of being out from behind my desk and I loved the feeling of not being under the gun with tests, showing my work, trying to hide when the teacher asked a question, and all the other pressures that elementary school students endure. Of course, I now look back and smile, because I can hardly fathom that anything happening in those early school years could have been considered pressures. They were certainly not the stresses that I experience as a private practicing dentist. Gone are the tests, but now there are staff demands. Gone is that showing of my work, but now there is the clinical excellence that my patients demand. Gone is hiding from teachers’ questions, but now there are charts to review and phone calls to make. It all makes me want to hide again. All of this and there isn’t even a daily recess to anticipate!
I am asked frequently about how to find balance in a professional life. As dentists enjoy the success of their practices, they also find that recess is sorely missed. As adults, we don’t call it recess any more. We call it finding balance. It isn’t always easy, but I believe that for all of the dentists who wish they had more time to create the balance they so sorely miss, opportunity is knocking on your doors.
My first recommendation is to sit down with a significant other and make a list of things that you either wish you were doing right now or that always wished you could do. These could be small things or big things, but the more complete the list, the better. Once you have honestly established a reasonable number of items on your wish list, the next step is to consider why it is that you have failed to actualize them. In particular, is it money holding you back or is it time? With this simple exercise, I believe that many dentists may recognize that their lives are more constrained in the area of time than money. We are blessed to have a profession that remunerates us very well. Unless your unmet wish list includes items such as a Learjet, my guess is that virtually anything you really want is within your means. At the same time, it can’t be a surprise to discover that the perceived enemy (time) is the culprit. As I said above, many dentists tell me that they are seeking balance in their lives. They also say that their office and work dominate their lives. In other words, they spend too much time and energy making more money than they need for what they really want. Voilá, the solution is at hand.
I would recommend starting simple. Among many other wonderful ideas, Stephen Covey has a unique way of planning your activities based on roles that you have in your life. He created a calendar/planner that lets you see in a clear fashion how your time is spent or planned in those roles. The calendar worked well for me when I realized that I am a husband, father, dentist, speaker, and homeowner. Covey recommends that you segregate your to-do list into appropriate roles you play in your life. When you have done that, you will identify where you are committing your time… or not. In particular, if you map out your week and the hours dedicated to your roles, you may discover the shortcomings in one or more of them. Now you are on the path. Knowing where you are headed (another Covey concept—he calls it “begin with the end in mind”) is key to planning your time so that you can move in the direction you want. If you aren’t aware of what you want, it’s much harder to get it.
By using these two simple methods, it becomes a matter of determining your plan for spending your time in a manner that will decrease your sense of “too much time at the office.” Consider how you feel at the end of a vacation—relaxed, refreshed, and ready to go. Is it really necessary to go to Hawaii to get that feeling? I think not. By literally planning free time to satisfy your unmet needs, you may realize that rejuvenating yourself is available more often than you think. In a similar fashion, planning your work schedule with adequate time to fulfill your personal goals, you might discover the opportunities that you feel you’ve been missing. For example, if it seems that cutting a half day off your regular weekly schedule would give you the time to complete a project, pursue French lessons, or attend a play with your spouse, doesn’t that seem to be more satisfying than spending “too much time” at your office?
And now comes the question of money. How is a practice supposed to maintain the level of productivity with any cut back plan? This is a crucial question to the long-term success of a dental practice. The answer lies in the dentist’s ability to control their own costs. I am not referring here to costs to run the practice. I am referring to the costs incurred voluntarily in one’s personal life. If we amass more and more debt, the ability to remain flexible in our work schedule diminishes. It is not possible to sustain a business or one’s private life by spending money that isn’t there. This simple concept seems to have escaped the attention of many CEOs of previously rock-solid companies. Can this same message not be applied to our personal finances? When we choose to leverage ourselves out with bigger and better toys, or more possessions, it becomes incumbent on us to continuously perform at a high level at work. However, as fiscal prudence is exercised, we are again led back to our original insight of lacking time more often than money. In short, we, as dentists, can certainly maintain a very high standard of living with the income we earn. I am not unaware of the high start-up costs for a new practice, and I am also not unaware of the expense of an education. I am sympathetic to a new practitioner who has significant debt and is less likely to take time off. Having completed a major office remodel, I am also aware of the ongoing expenses of maintaining an up-to-date practice. However, I believe all dentists, including new graduates, have the opportunity to create fiscal success. Often the critical factor is one’s personal expenditures. It is unfortunate that the potential for free time escapes many dentists.
If you are among those who want more balance in your life, it may be time to recall those wonderful moments of recess in elementary school. With a few conversations and a simple scheduling tool you can find time to create that balance. I’m thinking it’s time for recess again.