The Art of Unplugging

For some people (perhaps most?) taking time off of work and vacationing doesn’t require any mindset preparation. You have vacation days, you’ve planned a relaxing adventure, you leave the office Friday afternoon without a care in the world. Your job duties, responsibilities, and worries probably left your mind somewhere around lunch time that day, and you’ll not think about them until you return Monday morning, nine days from now.

But then there’s the rest of us, who have found ourselves so engaged in our work that it has become a fluid part of our life, even during those vacation weeks when it shouldn’t be. You’re out the door yet Friday night you find yourself texting a co-worker kindly requesting they help you with a task that you anticipate for Wednesday morning. You scan your memory for details and can already predict that you’ll be logging in to your work computer “just to check in” in the coming week. You’re worried about what might happen in your absence and if you missed anything so important that this responsibility might *GASP* need to be addressed by someone else who’s, you know, working that week.

^^ This second scenario is 100% me and NEWSFLASH to myself: what a waste of energy.

Since the beginning of residency I’ve made a terrible habit of staying plugged in. This is inherently easy to do, since many of us have our work emails connected to our phones, and we’re part of group chats with our friends/colleagues. It’s difficult to ignore the workplace when it’s staring you in the face, even when you’re 5000 miles away. In the past I admittedly have done the following while on vacation:

  • arranged research presentation details while at breakfast in Thailand

  • texted attendings about patients while sitting at the airport

  • filled prescriptions that showed up in my message box during a car ride up the Pacific coast

  • responded to patient messages about new symptoms

  • responded to countless emails about logistical work scheduling

    In a time where it’s so easy to be connected, it’s increasingly more difficult to master the art of unplugging.

I’m not sure how I learned this bad habit, but certainly it stems from my innate desire to please others. Being fully disconnected puts me in a position to delay others’ ability to organize schedules, or provide certain non-crucial elements of patient care, or put a hold on some group academic pursuit. It’s silly, but I don’t want to be that person; I want to be dependable. Furthermore I’ve observed so many well respected people in my field who have a common characteristic— the willingness to be available. Their personal cell phone numbers are shared with everyone, willing to take calls day and night, always responsive. I view this as dedicated, but certainly to our detriment.

This mentality may be reasonable if we had excessive vacation time and a low stress job, but unfortunately neither of these are true. With 3 vacation weeks in an academic year and work that is sometimes life or death, learning the skill of real rejuvenation in those precious days off is more crucial than ever. In older Medscape Happiness Reports, there seemed to be a correlation between burnout/unhappiness and the number of vacation weeks taken by physicians (this is obviously not surprising.) Americans in general do a pretty poor job at taking vacation in the first place, according to Project: Time Off. The most common reason to let vacation days go unused included: Fear of returning to too much work, perceiving that no one else could do the job in their absence, unable to afford a vacation, desire to show dedication, and the fear of being seen as replaceable. The statistics are astonishing from this project regarding the number of unused days being in the realm of hundreds of millions! Then to top it off, many of us who do take all the days, do so halfheartedly. I have a lot of goals for 2019, but certainly the skill of actual leisure time is one of them.

Just a snippet of the astonishing statistics of how Americans suck at vacationing (projecttimeoff.com)

Just a snippet of the astonishing statistics of how Americans suck at vacationing (projecttimeoff.com)

Certainly there are parts of me that feel guilty that I even get to worry about “vacationing better.” What a privileged concern to have, and I fully understand this! But what I’m also growing to understand is that when each of us learns to live optimally and mindfully in our current situation, everyone in our surroundings will benefit. How incredible that I have the luxury to travel, to see the world and experience something bigger than my bubble. What a waste that the bubble keeps part of me trapped in it. Truly resting and fully retreating from the work place could be the most invaluable thing I could do for my patients and coworkers. I could come back more motivated, dedicated, and creative than before.

I fell into this same pattern in my most recent trip just a few weeks ago. Don’t get me wrong- I had an INCREDIBLE trip to Florida seeing old friends and family. But when I looked down at the date on my calendar, remembering that one of my patients was coming in for a procedure and I needed to share an important detail of their care with the attending, I had called them. I responded to emails from our program coordinator. I read every message from our fellows group chat (which admittedly is the most hilarious chain of text messages) about daily happenings in the hospital.  Next vacation— I’m going to master the unplug.

  • Forward all electronic medical record messages to another fellow to address

  • Disconnect my work email from my phone, and turn on an auto reply

  • Silence the work group chat

  • Resist the urge to feel guilty

  • Recognize that stepping away helps me step forward

If this resonates with you and you’re struggling with this too- I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you’re learning to separate work and play time. Because the truth is, when we get plugged back in—we should be shining a brighter light than before. We deserve that!

Sincerely,

Shanny DO