It's time for ... recess
Like most of my elementary school peers, what I liked best about school was recess.
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Like most of my elementary school peers, what I liked best about school was recess. I was a good student, so the classes weren't difficult, but I confess that as the time approached for our playground romps, it always excited me. I loved being outside and I liked not being under the gun with tests, showing my work, hiding when the teacher asked a question, and the other pressures that young students endure. I now look back and smile because I can hardly fathom that anything in those years could have been considered pressures. They weren't the stresses I now experience in private practice.
Gone are tests, but now there are staff demands. Gone is showing my work, but now there is clinical excellence that my patients demand. Gone is hiding from teachers, but now there are charts to review and phone calls to make. I need recess again!
While consulting with dentists, I am asked frequently about how to balance a professional life. As dentists enjoy success, they also find that recess is sorely missed. As adults, we don't call it recess — we call it finding balance. It isn't always easy, but as I ponder the country's economy, it seems there is positive that could come out of this downturn. For dentists who wish they had their sorely missed balance, opportunity is knocking. A possible gift is to reclaim our recess during this recession.
Nearly all phases of the economy have slowed this year. This isn't surprising as we hear about double–digit unemployment, business failures, and layoffs from some of the biggest companies. In the state of Washington, the government (the biggest employer in my hometown of Olympia) is paring back. As I look ahead, I foresee current clients losing their jobs and, if things get worse, opting out of dental care.
From a dentist's view, a healthy mouth is critical to healthy living. From the public's view, putting food on the table and paying the rent have higher priority. That crown may wait and those braces could be delayed until the times get better. Uh–oh.
Rather than expand on this gloomy picture, I prefer to see what the current situation may bring to us instead of what it might take from us. If our patient load decreases, isn't it sensible to plan accordingly and capitalize on the opportunity rather than sitting at work all day stewing about holes in the schedule? I believe it makes perfect sense. How can we do that?
My first recommendation is to list the things you either wish you were doing now (but aren't doing) or that you always wished you could do. These could be small or big, but the more complete the list, the better. Once you have established a reasonable number of items on your list, the next step is to consider why you have failed to actualize them. In particular, is money holding you back, or is time?
With this simple exercise, many dentists may recognize that they are more constrained by time than money. We are blessed to have a profession that remunerates us well. Unless your unmet wish list includes a Lear jet, it's likely that anything you really want is within your means.
It also cannot be a surprise to discover that the perceived enemy (time) is the culprit. Many dentists tell me that they are seeking balance but that work dominates their lives.
In other words, they spend too much time making more money than they need for what they really want. Voilà, the solution is at hand. Holes in the appointment book could become new possibilities — piano lessons, longer lunches with a good book, or possibly even a day per month dedicated to being at your children's school, playing golf, or spending time with your spouse or friends.
Start simple. Stephen Covey has a wonderful way of planning activities based on roles in your life. He created a calendar/planner that lets you see clearly 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 segregating your to–do list into appropriate roles you play. When you do that, you will identify where you are committing your time ... or not. By mapping your week and the hours dedicated to roles, you may discover shortfalls in some of them.
Now you are on the path. Knowing your goal (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 desire. If you don't know what you want, it's harder to obtain. With these simple methods, you can establish a plan for allotting time in a way that will decrease your sense of overload at work. Consider how you feel after a vacation — relaxed, refreshed, and ready to go. Must one go to Hawaii to get that feeling? No.
By planning time to satisfy unmet needs, you may rejuvenate yourself more often than you thought possible. Similarly, planning a work schedule with adequate time to fulfill goals, you might discover the time you have been missing.
For example, if cutting a half–day off your regular weekly schedule would give you time to complete a project, pursue French lessons, or attend a play with your spouse, is that more satisfying than worrying at your office?
And now the question of money. How can a practice maintain a satisfactory level of productivity with this plan? This is a crucial question to a dental practice's long–term success. The answer lies in the dentist's ability to control costs. I don't mean costs to run the practice; I mean the costs incurred voluntarily in one's personal life. As we amass more debt, the ability to remain flexible in our work schedule diminishes. As many banks and other businesses have discovered in the past few months, it is not possible to sustain business by spending money that isn't there. This simple concept seems to have escaped the attention of many CEOs of previously rock–solid companies.
This same message can be applied to our personal finances. When we choose to leverage ourselves with bigger toys or more possessions, it becomes necessary to perform at a higher level at work. However, as fiscal prudence is exercised, we are led back to our insight of lacking time more often than money.
Dentists can certainly maintain a high standard of living with the income we earn. I am aware of the high start–up costs for a new office as well as 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 (including installing digital radiography), I am well aware of the ongoing expenses of maintaining an up–to–date practice. However, I believe that most dentists have had the opportunity to create fiscal success. For them, it is unfortunate that the potential for free time escapes them.
My hope is that no reader focuses on anything negative in these thoughts. It is important to recognize that some things are out of our immediate control, and the national economy is one of them. I have no doubts that dental practices will survive this episode, and I remain equally certain that there are numerous strategies for promoting your office's continuing level of profitability.
For the dentists pursuing those ends, I have no argument. However, the possibility of creating balance when extra effort is required to maintain status quo seems not only reasonable, but attractive, particularly for dentists who feel that they are controlled by their practices.
Dentistry has survived several crises during my 28 years in private practice. We've had increasing encroachment of insurance controls, OSHA regulations, Internet awareness, political pressures, the bursting of the tech bubble, and numerous other threats to our profession.
I don't foresee this temporary economic downturn spelling dentistry's demise. I am realistic and recognize the potential for a slowdown. The dentists who will do well during this time are the ones who are flexible and determine ways not just of surviving, but personally thriving. The opportunity that one can seize is to accept what is and make the most of it. I think it's time for recess again. How about you?
Dr. Greg Psaltis has been in private pediatric practice for 28 years in Olympia, Wash. He is well published and consults with private practices to enhance the systems, communications, and quality of life for doctors and team members. Reach him via e–mail at email@example.com.