TCD Fall 2008 - The Problem of Time
by Al Weir, MD
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2008
I had it all figured out. I told my office to schedule my last patient at 3:30. With the likelihood of being one hour behind by then, I could just make it to see my son pitch his 6 o’clock baseball game. Deacon’s meeting was at 8 o’clock and Bowen should be finished by then. Supper could wait – I had a cup of yogurt for breakfast.
Just as I was finishing up with my last patient at 5 o’clock and starting to leave the examining room, I saw a look of anguish on her face and watched her begin the question, and then hold it in. I had a choice to make, and either way I would hurt someone I cared for. Why is there just not enough time?
Most of us have had days like this. Time often rules our lives and time decisions hurt. I know this is true for doctors because we surveyed our membership in 2005 and found that 41 percent of our doctors listed time management as their chief life challenge and 32 percent listed stress. When we surveyed Christian medical and dental students last year, time management was listed as their second greatest challenge behind the volume of material they had to learn. I could lay out twenty reasons why this is so, but the bottom line truth is that doctors are too busy and overcommitted.
The real crux of time management as Christian doctors is what we choose to put into time rather than how we attempt make more of it. Margie Shealy, one of my co-workers at CMDA, recently lost her mother in death and sent to us this note of warning:
“One thing that I would like to share with you, that I am sure you already know, is that time is very precious; it is so important to use it wisely, to invest it in others and to not be selfish with it. Don’t look at that time you spend with those who need you as an obligation, but as a privilege.”
With what should we be filling our time? My pastor has told us many times, “The only things you take to heaven are your character and others.” So, what do we fill our time with? A year ago, I surveyed about two hundred Christian doctors with the question, “What is it that has brought joy to your life, both in your practice and outside your practice?” The importance of the question is this: If we can discover that which brings joy to our lives, we should pursue it, placing these things into our time schedule above all else. There were five major avenues to joy described. The first was service: to care of others solely out of a desire for their good. The second was relationships: with patients as whole persons, our families, our colleagues, and our friends. The third was devotion: devoting ourselves to the one relationship that makes all other relationships matter, to God through Christ. The fourth was mission: living out the mission and missions in life that God has called us to. And finally, personal growth: pursuing the God-given passions and longings of our lives in ways that honor the Creator.
I have no doubt that these are the things of eternal substance that should fill our time. The question is, “Have we let life stuff our time with other things of less importance?” And, if so, “How do we retake time from the less important so that it may be filled with eternal substance?”
This second question can be addressed in practical ways. There are a number of skills we can develop that can help us recover time from the less important:
- Build time into our schedule for quiet time, prayer, and devotion. If we hope to order our ways, we must first place them in His hands.
- Track how we are spending our time. Keep a daily list for a few days regarding how we spent our time with as much detail as possible. Some of us will be quite surprised at the chunks of unnecessary activities.
- Set a half-day in the future when we can sit down with someone we trust and list our priorities in life, remembering the five activities of joy listed above.
- Develop the organizational systems and staff that allow us to stay on top of things. We may be doing things very inefficiently, or might be short in personnel and having to take more on ourselves than is ideal. Sometimes a consultant can help us in these decisions.
- Make a list. Time efficiency can be improved by as much as 25 percent simply by keeping a list of tasks to complete. That list should be prioritized.
“A” List are tasks that you must Absolutely do
“B” List are tasks that you should Begin to do
“C” List are tasks that we Could do if time allowed
“D” List are tasks that we should Delegate to someone else
“E” List are tasks that we should Eliminate
“F” List are tasks that we should Forward to a definite date
- When new tasks cross our desks, they should not pile up on the corner. Reasonable options for new tasks include:
a) Throw it away
b) Pass it along to someone else
c) Take immediate action on it
d) Seek more information on it
e) File it
f) Remember and practice “OHIO”: as much as possible, Only Handle It Once
- Develop a deliberate plan for the following potential time wasters:
a) Telephone interruptions
b) Unexpected visitors
d) Socializing at work
- Handle meetings well. Set a time; start on time; stay on agenda; focus discussion around prepared, previewed documents, and shut down on time. As a rule, with a few exceptions, no meeting should last more than an hour and many can be much shorter. Stand up meetings on average last less than half the time as sit down ones!
In my own life when I take all of this information and distill it, managing time as a Christian doctor comes down to simplify, surrender, and select. I need to simplify my lifestyle so that I am free to complete God’s best plan for my life. I start this process by setting boundaries on my expectations and acquisitions, then move toward removing possessions or activities in my life that use my time in less than vital endeavors. Each morning, I surrender myself to God. I look to heaven and give God all I am, all I have, all my dreams, all my plans, all those I love. Let God entangle me where He will. And, finally, I need to select: these things I will do and these things I will let go. Here I must be deliberate about setting priorities and choosing only the best. For most of us, this should be reviewed yearly during a special time of reflection.
One final lesson is critical: our time is in God’s hands. If we truly offer our lives to Him, if we invite Him to the race each day, no matter what the pace, God will keep up with us. We need not despair when we seem to be losing the battle with time. Dr. Nabil Jabbour, a retina specialist from Morgantown, West Virginia, told me of a day that his life seemed too fast-paced even for God. His office had overbooked him to the tune of seventy-two patients. He knew the task was impossible and that even God would not find a slot to show Himself. The day just had to be survived. It began in the hectic, time-pressured way he imagined, but then God stepped in as if to say, “No matter how fast you run, you won’t leave me behind.”
A woman he had treated for some time with progressive blindness greeted him, “I’ve done it!” This patient had consistently denied God’s presence in her life and felt that life had no purpose. Her husband was confined to a nursing home and she was steadily losing her sight. Dr. Jabbour had been seeking to bring her to the Lord, but she had rejected his God for months as her vision deteriorated and her husband weakened. On this overwhelming, fastpaced day, where even God could not keep up, she exclaimed, “I’ve done it! I’ve found purpose in life.” She had awakened that day at a point of despair such that she would try anything, and had said to God, “Okay, God, you prove to me today that I can find purpose in life, as I walk nearly blind through a nursing home filled with hopeless people, and I’ll believe in you.”
She carried with her a box of donuts and passed them out perfunctorily as she moved from bed to bed toward her husband. Then, as she left the bedside of one elderly man, he would not let go of her hand. “You don’t know what you’ve done for me,” he said. “What?” she asked. “No one has held that hand for seventeen years.” She fell to her knees in tears and then, during the most hectic office day in Dr. Jabbour’s life, she told him, “There is purpose in life and I know God is real.”
Redeemed from hopelessness, this woman spoke and God said to Dr. Jabbour, “Be wise with your time. Order it well. Walk when you can walk – but when you have to run, remember that I am God and I can keep up with you.”