Best Ways Physicians Can Improve Work-Life Balance by Minimizing Contaminated Time at Work and at Home (Jill Farmer, Gabriella Dennery, MD)

by Coach Jill Farmer and Coach Gabriella Dennery MD | Burnout Prevention, Physician Burnout, Physician Wellness, Podcast, Resilience, Wellness, Work Life Balance

This episode focuses on time management and will help you minimize contaminated time at work and at home in order to improve your work-life balance.Physician Burnout: Proactive Steps You Can Take Today

“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.”

Jill Farmer

Contaminated time is a topic that comes up a lot in our conversations. It’s a term that’s been recently introduced in the field of stress management. Here, we discuss what contaminated time actually is and what someone can do about it. We first learned about the term from New York Times best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, Brigid Schulte. Essentially, contaminated time refers to the idea that, whether we’re at work or at home, our time can become “contaminated” by worries, thoughts, energy, and attention, which takes us away from the present moment.

Research has shown that those with less contaminated time are more productive. We discuss practical ways to better manage contaminated time that won’t make you feel robotic. Much of dealing with contaminated time involves setting boundaries around things like checking and responding to emails. Here, we share some of the ways we can tackle time leaking so you can spend more time being present in both your professional and personal lives.

What’s Inside:

  • The definition of contaminated time and its impact.
  • How to effectively deal with time leaks and stay in the present moment.
  • Practical tips to implement boundaries to prevent time contamination.

Mentioned In This Episode:

Find full transcripts of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast episodes on the DocWorking Blog

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Please enjoy the full transcript below


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

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. And today we’re going to talk about what is called contaminated time. And so, 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 kind of the time stress management field. What is contaminated time? And 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 sort of disrupt our work flow. 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. And 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. And that even though we might think while 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 of work and home get intermingled with each other doesn’t always serve us particularly well. That doesn’t mean you’re supposed to like 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 clearer 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 got to restart again. So understanding that concept is number one. And then number two, for me, is just if I’m doing work and my mind’s off, then jumping ahead, thinking about something going on with my parents health or my kids, or this argument I had with the neighbor or whatever else it is, I ask 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 grab my phone, the notes 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 in the notes section of my phone and say, is there a task or an idea that I want to capture or hold on to later when I’m working? And then I kind of 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? 

Gabriella: It brings to mind a good friend of mine who was a professional social worker working actively, very busy, very busy family life, very busy work life who said, you know what I do to decontaminate, if you will, is to, on her auto responder, 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. And so, 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 the here and now, focusing on time with family, for example, focusing on time with friends, focusing on listening to a good piece of music. If I have my earplugs in my ear and I’m dancing with something, next thing you know I have a 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, nope, this time is specifically for this thing and nothing else. 

Jill: I think it does. And, you know, we wail and gnash 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 you know 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 that 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 of 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, 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. 

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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.

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.

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