How Physicians Can Improve Work-Life Balance by Minimizing Contaminated Time at Work and at Home

by Coach Gabriella Dennery MD and Coach Jill Farmer | Physician Coaching, Podcast

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How Physicians Can Improve Work-Life Balance by Minimizing Contaminated Time at Work and at Home

“Maybe getting a little clearer on what this idea is so you can be even five percent or ten percent more intentional about keeping those two things separate.” -Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer 

In today’s episode, Coach Gabriella Dennery MD and Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer explain contaminated time and how it hinders our productivity. As a physician, when you’re at home, do you find yourself thinking about work and vice versa? You’re not alone, and in fact Americans are collectively worse at this than Europeans. Here are some tips from the DocWorking Coaches on how to stop the leaking of contaminated time, how to get more intentional about our thoughts, and subsequently, how to best spend our limited time on the things that matter most to us in each present moment.

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Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran

Please enjoy the full transcript below

Jill: Maybe getting a little clear on what this idea is, so you can be even 5% or 10% more intentional about keeping those two things separate.

[DocWorking theme]

Gabriella: Hi, my name is Gabriella Dennery, MD, for DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. And I’m joined today with co-lead, Master Coach Jill Farmer. Today we’re going to talk about what is called Contaminated Time. Jill, this is something that you talk about a lot, and it’s a term that I think from what I understand is actually fairly recent in the time stress management field. What is contaminated time? The next question is, what can someone do about it?

Jill: Yeah, exactly. I first learned about this term, Contaminated Time from Brigid Schulte, who is a New York Times bestselling author and former Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, somebody I know and like a lot. In her book Overwhelmed from a few years ago, she, I think, coined the term contaminated time. And it was referring simply to this idea that often when we’re at work, our time is contaminated by worries and thoughts and energy and attention and focus going to things outside of work that disrupt our workflow. And then also when we are outside of work, living our life at home, or wherever we are outside of work, that often that time is contaminated by worries, thoughts, disruptions of things happening at work. 

Productivity experts tell us that Europeans particularly tend to be better at uncontaminated time where when you’re at work, you’re at work, and when you’re at home, you’re at home. Even though we might think, well, they’re just not working as much, or thinking through things, actually, their productivity is higher. And so that this idea of often, letting those two things at work and home get intermingled with each other, doesn’t always serve us particularly well. That doesn’t mean you’re supposed to have these perfect blocks of robot like living where, “I never think about anything to do with home, or my kids or life at work,” or the opposite. It’s just maybe getting a little clear on what this idea is. So, you can be even 5% or 10% more intentional about keeping those two things separate.

To your second question, what do we do about it? Understanding the concept of contaminated time, I think is just really helpful. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, there’s my brain going off worrying about losing focus, I’ve got to restart again.” Understanding that concept is number one. And then number two, for me, if I’m doing work, and my mind’s often jumping ahead, thinking about something going on with my parents’ health, or my kids, or this argument I had with a neighbor, or whatever else it is, I asked myself, “Okay, do I need to write down a task, an idea, anything down right now, so I can deal with this later when I’m not working.” And if I do, I just grabbed my phone, the note section of my phone or a little notebook, I keep in my purse, and I write it down. And then I give myself permission to come back to the present moment. 

Same thing, if I’m enjoying time with my family in the evenings, or I’m taking a walk or doing something else, and my mind starts to shift to work stuff and my energy and time and focus gets lost, I grab that same little notebook and a note section on my phone and say, is there a task or an idea that I want to capture hold on to later when I’m working? Then I take a deep breath and allow myself to let it go. So, those are the definition of contaminated time and two ways that I play with it. What do you think of when you hear all that stuff about it? 

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Gabriella: It brings to a good friend of mine who is a professional social worker working actively very busy, very busy family life and busy work life, was said that, what I do to decontaminate, if you will, is to on her autoresponder, she says very clearly, “I do not respond to emails on Saturdays or Sundays. I don’t look at social media on Saturdays and Sundays.” She did carve out a specific time and a specific schedule and a specific strategy really, to really stop the leaking between work and home, or, “Oh, let me catch up on an email here, I’m falling a little behind. Oh, I’m just going to do an hour, I’m just going to do 20 minutes,” whatever. 

As you said, it’s not just the time or the action or the activity, it’s a thought. And the thought that takes us away from here now focusing on time with family, for example, focusing on time with friends, focusing on listening to the good piece of music, if I have my earplugs in my ear, and I’m dancing with something, next thing, I have work related thought pop in my head. It kind of takes away from the joy. So let me not do that to myself. In the meantime, as you said, it’s not rigid. It’s not robotic, but it’s conscious, it’s deliberate. It’s something that you have to plan, you have to put in there saying, “Okay, I’m going to unplug, literally, and get into the habit of unplugging and creating that space for myself where I’m not contaminating my time,” is that what you find that it takes a little time to get used to get into that habit of saying, “No, this time is specifically for this thing, and nothing else.”

Jill: I think it does. We wail and gash our teeth at this electronic world we live in and having access to emails in our pocket at all times on our phone, and all those kinds of things. And I don’t find it particularly helpful to, again, wail and gnash my teeth at the reality. And that reality means I do need to take some different steps as you said, and create some boundaries. Don’t have to be rigid walls, and where you’re a warrior, off to war against it, but it’s just intention, oh, yeah, I’m going to be intentional. I love that about my time off work and communicating that I don’t respond to emails, and you can’t just expect to reach out to me and talk work stuff 24/7 when we’re outside of that boundary. That’s beautiful. Being intentional about the leaking, as you said, and understanding contaminated time, and then giving ourselves just a little bit of a pressure release valve, so that we don’t have to think, “Oh, I don’t want to forget that tomorrow.” Or, “I want to remember that later.” Just jot it down, have a safe little container of someplace to jot it down, hold on to it. And then, it feels more free to be back in the present moment. Because that’s really, what we’re inviting you to do with this idea, is to come back to the present moment because that’s where you can be at your most peaceful and productive at the same time. 

Thanks to all of you for joining in and listening to us. We love having you here. Tell your friends about us. Until next time, I’m Jill Farmer on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.


Amanda: This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe, and thank you for listening. 



Life Coach Gabriella Dennery, MD OMD is passionate about helping busy physicians rediscover the joy of their calling. She draws on her training as a physician, a musician, and an ordained non-denominational minister in addition to health & wellness and life coaching to offer professionals from all walks of life the benefit of her broad experience and deep insights.

You can find Gabriella as one of the co-creators of STAT: Quick Wins To Get Your Life Back.

The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and a neurosurgeon father, both from Haiti, Gabriella and her five siblings were expected to choose from five noble callings: Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, or Agronomy (caring for the delicate soil of Haiti).

Gabriella, an innately gifted healer and teacher, chose Medicine and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine, “The Mecca.” Following her residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Gabriella moved to New York City to serve as an attending physician and clinical instructor in Harlem and later as medical director and attending physician at SUNY Downstate Bedford-Stuyvesant satellite clinic in Brooklyn.

Her greatest joy as a primary care physician was supporting her patients, shepherding them to Aha moments, and nurturing positive shifts in perspective that measurably improved their health and wellbeing–a strength that makes Gabriella so effective as a coach.

After more than ten years of practicing internal medicine, Gabriella chose to explore the integration of medicine, music, and ministry to promote better health of her fellow physicians by becoming a physician coach. She successfully coaches physicians to prevent and/or navigate through physician burnout, reach career and personal goals, clarify and take actionable steps to achieve their own personal vision, and is well known for helping doctors at all stages of their careers, from students to residents/fellows to practicing physicians. She maintains her work-life balance by playing percussion and violin, composing music, and enjoying a very fun and fulfilling marriage.

Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.

She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.

She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.

Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.

Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.

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