By Ted A James, MD, MHCM
January 10, 2018
“Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else“
— Peter F. Drucker
Physicians have a crucial role to play leading health care transformation. The problem is that there is no end to competing interests vying for our time. Most of us respond to increasing demands by putting in longer hours—which inevitably takes a toll on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Soon, all of our time becomes consumed by busywork, and we miss opportunities to realize our vision and make a lasting and meaningful impact as leaders. This ultimately leads to frustration and a lack of fulfillment. Fortunately, steps can be taken to be more effective with time:
1. Focus on the Mission: Purpose-Driven Leadership
“The purpose of life…is to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is a philosophy that we are all given the time we need to do the things we are meant to do. It requires us to continually focus on our primary mission. Lack of time, in reality, is a lack of focus. Your role as a leader in health care is not to merely maintain the status quo; instead, it is to focus on bringing about change that drives the organization forward, advances the quality of health care, and makes a positive impact on the lives of others.
All too often we lose this focus and allow our days to be filled with many seemingly ‘important’ tasks that ultimately serve no real lasting purpose. Few physician leaders have a clear sense of their primary mission or a concrete action plan to achieve their leadership goals. As a result, their impact is limited, and they fail to reach the full extent of their potential. On the contrary, those who have accomplished great things in life are driven to make the most of their time and pursue worthy goals as leaders.
Developing a personal mission statement can help provide this level of clarity. It requires having a clear vision and passion for what you are meant to achieve in life. Start by addressing the following:
- Identify your core values
- Consider how you can best make meaningful contributions
- Determine your strengths and talents based on past successes
- Set ambitious goals that truly matter to you and those you serve
Leaders should ask themselves, “is what I’m doing or about to do going to get us closer to the goal”? Learn to say ‘no’ to activities that do not serve to further your primary mission. As a leader it is your responsibility to set boundaries on your time—protect it or lose it. Make certain you are using your gifts in a way that is most meaningful.
2. Choose One Goal Each Day:
“One worthwhile task carried to a successful conclusion is worth half-a-hundred half-finished tasks“ — Malcolm S. Forbes
One of the greatest threats to your time is allowing many ‘urgent but not important’ things to keep you from the vital few responsibilities that make a real difference. On a daily basis, select the single most important goal that will drive forward your primary mission. This will help you avoid getting sidetracked by distractions that will undoubtedly arise. Put aside the endless to-do lists that perpetuate busy work and never entirely get checked off. Instead, at the start of each day, decide on one accomplishment that would make the day a success then arrange your day to meet that specific goal.
3. Learn to Delegate Well:
“Only do what only you can do.” ― Paul Sloane
Delegation is an essential skill for any leader. It’s tempting to believe that it would be easier to do everything yourself, but you don’t have the capacity for that. Neither should you assume sole responsibility for the problems brought to you by other team members. An important role of leaders is developing others. Your ability to effect change increases with each person you empower to contribute to the shared mission.
By contrast, your ability to make a meaningful difference decreases with every task you hold on to needlessly. The aim is to delegate whatever isn’t the best use of your time. Allowing other members of the team to function at the top of their ability improves efficiency and allows the leader to direct more attention to matters only they can attend to. Delegation often fails when leaders simply hand out tasks without engaging and developing their people.
Effective delegation is a process that involves setting expectations, clearly defining the work, monitoring progress, and providing structured feedback and mentoring. Much like residency, delegating is a form of supervised training with progressive levels of responsibility and independence. Be careful to avoid micromanaging, which undermines creativity and limits self-directed problem-solving. It is also important to reward results to promote self-confidence and engagement. As the delegation process progresses, you will comfortably be able to hand over more responsibility for day-to-day decision-making.
A Final Thought
“Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us, unplayed.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
Time is your most valuable asset. It should be used to pursue activities that bring significant meaning and value. Physician leaders can learn to optimize their time through priority-setting and team delegation, allowing them to focus more on their primary mission. Making the most of time requires vision, focus, and discipline. Time is limited, so choose wisely.
- Craig N, Snook SA. From Purpose to Impact: Figure Out Your Passion and Put It to Work. Harvard Business Review 92, no. 5 (May 2014): 105–111.
- Sinek S. How Great Leaders Inspire Action, TEDxPuget Sound, September 2009
- Gordon CE, Borkan SC. Recapturing time: a practical approach to time management for physicians. Postgrad Med J. 2014 May;90(1063):267-72
Dr. Ted James is a medical director and vice chair at BIDMC/Harvard Medical School. He is an alumnus of the Harvard Health Care Management program and is involved internationally in leadership development and health care transformation. He also teaches through the HMS Office of Executive Education.
Dr. James blogs about health care transformation. To see more of his posts, click on his name in the tags below.
*OPINIONS EXPRESSED BY OUR GUEST AUTHORS ARE VALUABLE TO US AT LEAN FORWARD, BUT DO NOT REPRESENT OFFICIAL POSITIONS OR STATEMENTS FROM HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL.