How To Win Your War With Time Like Expert Medics

Adam Cairns
8 min readOct 10, 2019

What top doctors can teach us about managing time

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

There are only three events in a man’s life; birth, life, and death; he is not conscious of being born, he dies in pain, and he forgets to live. — Jean de La Bruyère

Doctors are familiar with dilemmas.

In medicine, problems with no neat solutions abound. Every decision can be the difference between sustaining life, or extinguishing it.

Who to treat, whether to treat, how to treat.

Early in their training, doctors must learn the art and skill of prioritisation.

One governing principle guides their thinking: to do only what works. Their focus must be on effectiveness.

But doctors also understand that no treatment is sometimes the best medicine. Each of us has a span of time that will ultimately expire. Sometimes it is best to let nature take its course.

So, what can those who patrol the boundary between life and death teach us about the stewardship of our most precious resource — time?

I asked some top doctors what they thought.

This is what they told me.

1 Treat The Mind

When you treat a disease, first treat the mind.


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Dr Sean Hashmi is a nephrologist at Woodland Hills, California. Besides running a successful medical practice, he also owns SELF Principle a strictly non-commercial website which provides evidence-based health, nutrition and wellness research.

Sean is clear that good mental hygiene is a priority. He told me:

Stress is a part of life. It’s our response to stress that is important. I meditate every morning, exercise and focus on quality time with the family.

Sean says the key is remembering it’s not the stress that damages you, it’s your response.

Here are three ways to toughen your response.

  • Take back control.
  • Cultivate an optimistic mindset.
  • Spend time with people you love.

Is this an antidote or a prophylaxis?

It doesn’t matter. Either way, a healthy mind prepares you to do a better job of handling stress.

2 Don’t Take It Home

If you make every game a life and death proposition, you’re going to have problems. For one thing, you’ll be dead a lot.


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To lead a better life, to have productive time and do the things you want, pay attention to boundaries.

Tess Gerritsen is a novelist and doctor so is someone who understands the necessity of creating life compartments.

One moment she’s a doctor juggling patients and their needs. Then she’s a novelist, crafting words on the page.

Two different worlds.

Experience might bleed from one area to the other, but to be effective in either, Tess knows she has to focus.

Her years of experience led her to develop a rule that allows her to keep things straight.Tasks quick to accomplish she does straight away. To illustrate her point, she gives this example:

Don’t delay recording patient notes. Do them right after the visit and never take work home because it will destroy your evening!

There are two lessons you can learn from Tess.

  1. If you can do it now, do so.
  2. Establish clear compartments in your life.

Here are some boundaries to consider:

  • Work: Not work.
  • Creative work: Administrative work.
  • Work time: Family time.
  • Professional: Social.
  • Work: Vacation.
  • Alert: Relaxed.
  • Daytime: Evening time.

Ask yourself whether you could sharpen any of your boundaries.

3 Be Human

People pay the doctor for his trouble; for his kindness they still remain in his debt.


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You don’t get wasted time back.

This brute fact can produce a cult like adherence to productivity systems, ruthless prioritisation and cold-eyed pragmatism.

Dr Hilary Jones is a popular UK based TV doctor. When I asked him to share some insights from his decades of medical practice, he was unequivocal.

Prioritise your patients in terms of clinical need whilst never forgetting to acknowledge and listen to those needing your care, warmth and reassurance. They will always forgive you if you explain that you would love to give them more time than you actually have …. a fact they will clearly be able to see for themselves.

However essential, it’s not enough to just prioritise. Behind every decision you make is a choice. To do one thing and not another.

When you make your choice, remember your decision may affect other people. Hilary reminds us a little humanity makes all the difference.

The next time you’re ruthlessly prioritising, bear this in mind.

4 Keep The Home Fires Burning

No man is a good doctor who has never been sick himself.


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If you’re dead on your feet, exhausted and worn out and you’re a doctor, your patients should worry.

This is not an optimal state for doing your best work in any context.

Dr Susan Biali Haas lists flamenco dancing among her many interests and also runs a successful business as a wellness coach, lifestyle expert and international speaker.

When I asked Susan what she thought she told me that ‘keeping the home fires burning’ is a big priority.

Make sure to take time to eat, it will keep your energy levels up and make you more efficient and productive than if you skip meals or grab junk on the run.

Not allocating sufficient time to care for yourself properly is a common problem when time gets squeezed.

It’s easy to put your head down and force yourself to carry on.

Resist the temptation to keep ploughing on, regardless. Instead, keep your mind and body fuelled and rest regularly.

5 Dump Energy Sinks

He is the best physician who is the most ingenious inspirer of hope.


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Dr Mamta Gautam is a psychiatrist with 25-years experience and now CEO and President of Peak MD, an organisation dedicated to leadership resilience, and ‘keeping well professionals well’.

With all this experience and expertise, she makes a compelling case for managing time with care.

Mamta says she prefers to think of time as energy.

Everything that we do takes time. Some things take time and create more energy for us; other things take time and leave us drained. Identify what is energy-creating for you and do more of that. Let go of what is energy-draining.

There are two kinds of activity:

  • Life enhancing, energy giving.
  • Life diminishing, energy sapping.

Do an audit of how much of each is in your life. Then eliminate the latter and grow the former.

6 Return To Your Purpose

The role of a clown and a physician are the same — it’s to elevate the possible and to relieve suffering.


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Dr Clark Schierle is a board-certified Chicago plastic surgeon specialising in aesthetic and reconstructive surgery.

Clark has this to say about time management.

When you are lying on your deathbed, you will not wish you had worked more. We are very fortunate that we are in a profession with profound meaning that is very emotionally and spiritually rewarding but we must be careful to take care of ourselves to avoid burnout.

Clarifying and re-clarifying your ‘why’ — the central purpose or purposes to your life’s work is crucial if the work you’re doing is to have meaning.

When time pressures lead to feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to lose sight of your purpose.

Clark also encourages you to be kind and caring to yourself.

You will be a better person and a better doctor if you take care of yourself. You will be a better parent if you spend half as much money and twice as much time with your kids.

7 Beware Of Productivity Tools

It is easy to get a thousand prescriptions but hard to get one single remedy.


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Productivity tools are everywhere.

The application and software designers claim their aim is to help you be more productive, although sometimes their efficiency is itself a problem.

Take email for example: ashton kutcher suggests that ‘emails are someone else’s to-do list’. Dr Magnus Harrison hits the nail on the head.

Emails must not become your to-do list.

Email is a monster — so don’t add to your time management problems by converting emails into tasks.

Remember your email client is not a to-do list. Cordon off time to process your inbox each day.

Bonus Tip 1 — First Do No Harm

A surgeon is a doctor who can operate and who knows when not to.


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Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is a foundational medical ethic.

It teaches medical students an essential truth.

For any condition, it may be better not to do something or even do nothing than potentially to make things worse.

If you’re battling to manage your time more effectively, you may suffer from several symptoms:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fear

Treating the symptoms of your time management malaise may do you more harm than good, however.


If you don’t diagnose the source of your time management problem, easing its symptoms might encourage you to pile on more time-consuming activities.

Doctors all agree. A sound diagnosis is the basis for all effective treatment.

Bonus Tip 2 — Triage Your Responsibilities

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Medical triage evolved on the battlefield.

It is a tool which enables a field doctor to provide the greatest good to the greatest number of casualties.

Although doctors use more sophisticated algorithms today, they originally categorised casualties as:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

You can apply a similar method to your priorities and triage them like this:

  1. Tasks likely to get done, whether or not you pay attention to them.
  2. Tasks which are more complex and need planning to make them achievable.
  3. Tasks which you can do straight away and when completed will make the boat go faster.

Your Turn — What Time Management Remedies Would You Prescribe?



Adam Cairns

Exploring the intersection between good organisation and creativity |Blog | Digital Garden |