Prioritise and delegate
In her shortlisted essay for the 2019 John Henahan Prize, Dr Allie Lee asserts that balance can only come living a life that accords well with one's core values and priorities.
Eight-thirty at night, one hand of mine penning this article, the other rested on my bump feeling the joyful kicks of my 24-week baby. My spirited 3-year-old was enthusiastically inviting me to be sous chef for his playdough supper, while my dear husband was questioning the whereabouts of his old crimson square pattern silk tie that he would need the next day. From my phone came the apologetic voice of my resident, “Sorry to call at this hour… I just saw a patient with burst cornea and sclera, but I can’t figure out where it ends…”.
Moving from residency to practice, young single life to wedlock and parenthood, the demands of any one of these roles can easily take centre stage in one’s life. I hardly felt like a conquering soul. I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the exhaustion, overwhelmed by being a new mom, overwhelmed by trying to make good on the faith that my colleagues and patients had in me. That steered me towards the question of our time: Can we have it all?
Create your own version of balance
I went searching for an answer. I googled. I read biographies. I talked to people. There seems to be no one-size-fits-all gold-standard type of work life balance. Different roles at different stages of life call for different adaptations. The ideal balance of an up-and-coming young trainee can look entirely different to a mid-career parent of three, and even more disparate from someone near retirement. This balance is fluid and changes over time. It is important to review constantly. Find a state that brings you happiness and personal fulfilment. Live a life that accords well with your core values and priorities. Be mindful of all sorts of extremes as too much of anything can do more harm than good. It is more about devoting manageable amounts of time to each aspect of life that matters to you, rather than exact equal shares.
Let go, prioritise and delegate
Aspiring. Overachieving. Controlling. Being flawless. Pursuing the absolute best. These consistent character traits of ophthalmologists are indispensable in making us good at what we do, when we are dealing with a margin of error in millimetres and microns in our practice. However, giving your all every day to professional life and equivalent parts to family to such precision is possibly the quickest way to frustration and burnout. You will never feel like you are measuring up. There are only so many hours a day that one can only do so much and still be happy and healthy. Set realistic goals. Identify areas of your life that demand more of your attention and direct your finite energy there. For the rest, get support whenever possible. Effective delegation at work not only helps yourself, but also provides opportunities for others to learn and grow. At home, when you start to outsource, you may be surprised to find that someone can actually get the tasks done much faster and better.
Compartmentalise and quality time
Have you ever experienced the “always-on” mentality? Modern technology has enhanced our lives in so many useful ways but also created channels for instant accessibility and distractions. The following would not sound foreign to any of us: checking emails after work, answering calls on days off, doing work while on holiday… It is so tempting to dip into unfinished work. We need to make a conscious effort to minimise spill-over of work into personal life. Know when to unplug. Be judicious and respect protected time. Another key would be to make quality time true quality time. Your patients appreciate your undivided attention. Your family and friends deserve the very same. When you are physically present, be there mentally too. Real communication builds richer relationships. Our family have adopted a zero screen policy at the dining table. My three-year-old boss would frown and nag “no phone please” until your phone was stowed away. Enjoy the valuable together time. Make memories and make your family feel loved and special.
Be good to yourself too
“Be in charge of yourself, your family, your country and the world, in that order” – an old Chinese proverb that I find much wisdom in. You cannot care for others if you do not care for yourself. Always reserve some “me time” for yourself, however small chunks, to be yourself, relax and recharge. Treat your body and soul right – eat right, exercise more and get adequate rest. Indulge in little joyful pleasures you well deserve, guilt-free. In career, embrace what you love. You would be more likely to take on challenges and find rewards.
Can we really have it all? I am still very hopeful that we can, perhaps just not all at the same time. Now I demur to let someone else set the bar for success for me, and would gladly define for myself what “all” it is I want to strive for. I learnt to take things one at a time, be engaged, smell the roses along the way. Life is a marathon and not a sprint. Start small, enjoy little wins, and build from there.
* Dr Lee is an Associate Consultant at Honk Kong Eye Hospital, Kowloon, Hong Kong