I used to live life ruled by time. I was not a very obedient subject, and was always running late, but it ruled me, nonetheless.
My problem with time became even worse when I had two small children and was struggling to raise them while working as a doctor and running my own business.
My feeling of being trapped in time was epitomised by our morning trips to drop the kids off to school before I went to work. My young son would sit in the car on the way to school counting out loud as the clock ticked over (9.15, 9.16, 9.17 … ) all the way, and in my head it was (5 minutes late, 6 minutes late, 7 minutes late …).
One day, the clock stopped working. I was in heaven, temporarily. A few minutes of silence as we drove together, a few precious moments where we could just be with each other without worrying about what was next or how late we were running for it.
I didn’t fix the clock. And I would treasure those moments of space in the car where I did not feel trapped in or bound by time. I would get to school and then work at the same time, still usually a few minutes late, but in a completely different energy, and with a sense of ease and spaciousness that I brought to my day.
I started to explore this feeling of space more and more, and how I could bring it to my everyday life.
At work I am very much bound by time, with appointment slots of 5, 10, or 20 minutes, depending on the nature of the visit. I used to watch the clock in increasing despair, as I saw myself running 10, then 20, then 30 minutes late … I tried extending my appointment times, but then people were waiting for 6 weeks for an appointment to see me … and if someone did not show up (which frequently happens despite all our efforts to remind them), it left a gap that could otherwise have been filled by someone who wanted or needed to see me.
I don’t like keeping people waiting (believe it or not, most doctors don’t). We care about you and the time we keep you waiting, which is almost unavoidable when dealing with people, who can be unpredictable and messy and cannot be fitted into neat little boxes, of time or anything else! This lateness created a constant tension in me, which would lead me to seek relief from the tension at the end of the day, with alcohol, food, or distractions like TV and movies.
I realised that while I am operating I feel much more spacious, as I am not watching the clock, but completely focussed on what I am doing and in the timeless flow of that. The operation takes as long as it takes, and then I do the next one. And when they are all done, I am finished, no matter what time it is. And because I have a fair idea of how long each type of operation takes me to do, and because I like to leave a little leeway in case things don’t go exactly according to plan, I am almost always finished on time or early.
So I brought this same focus and flow and feeling of spaciousness to my consulting days. I just do what is in front of me to be done. And when everyone has been seen, all the phone calls and dictation and paperwork have been taken care of, then my working day is done. And if the unexpected happens, which it frequently does, as we are dealing with people, who can behave unpredictably, I just make space for that in my day.
And I realised that I work much more to time now than I used to when I focussed on the time. Making it about time created an anxiousness, a tension in me. And that would make me less attentive, and my movements less flowing and more clunky and everything would take a little longer. Trying to rush through anything, in my experience, always ends up taking longer in the long run.
Now, I just make it about space. The space within and around me, the space between me and my patients and my staff. I give whoever and whatever is before me my full attention. I give people space to just be and to express what they need to say. I don’t rush or hurry them, but I don’t overly indulge them either.
For example, when taking a history, I just let people speak. Some of them have been waiting to say what they want to say for a long time, and it is important to let them have their say. This rarely takes more than a few minutes at most, but it allows people space to be seen and to be heard, and to feel that what they have to say matters, which it does. I often know what is going on for them within a few seconds, but I don’t cut them off, I give them space to express it all. And I find that very little needs to be said after that, whereas if they are cut off, they are continually trying to finish what they started, and they can leave feeling unheard and unsatisfied.
I love my work days now. There is an ease and a flow about the way I work which radiates out to my staff, my patients and my waiting room. Of course I am not perfect and I am often running a few minutes late and sometimes quite a few, but my patients know that when their turn comes, I will give them my full attention and do whatever is in my power to help them with their problems and care for them as people.
At the end of the day I feel tired, but not exhausted, and I take that spacious feeling home with me to my husband. And if for any reason I get trapped in time again, and lose that feeling of space, I take a moment to come back to my connection with myself and the spaciousness inside. Just sitting for a moment, or having a drink of water, or taking a toilet break is sometimes all that it takes. I go for a short walk at lunchtime which sometimes helps me to realise that I have taken something on in the morning, and allows me to let it go, so that I start the afternoon afresh, and at the end of the day I sit for a moment as I warm up my car and reflect on my day and how it was and how I am feeling now.
It is all one life, and we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves and not just go home and dump our day on our families or bury it in food or drown it in drink or numb it with all manner of distraction and numbing devices that we have at our disposal these days. Our jobs are inherently stressful and we can deal with that stress and let it go at the end of the day, or carry it into the next day, and the next, and the next …
Living life in such a responsible way, responding to what is happening and how you are feeling, allows you to feel spacious, even joyful, while doing a busy, inherently stressful job, day after day after day … and to grow old gracefully, loving what you do … now that is good medicine … not just for doctors, but for everyone!
This was such a great article to read as I have a young son and I have on numerous mornings, actually most mornings feel rushed by time and trapped by it. I hate being late yet I always seem to be. I hate to rush but I do…. giving myself more time and space in the mornings to do what I want to do for myself requires a rhythm and being in bed early the night before.
I loved your reminder about space and allowing people to say what they had to say, and not cutting them off.
I also love the simple reminder of coming back to yourself during the day and not returning home with stuff from work to dump onto the family ! Big responsibility there.
I dropped my phone when I read that so there was a lot in that for me to take in.
I also read your article whilst being on the toilet and about letting things go at the end of the day, which was the perfect time and place for me to be too… ????????
Always love your writing Anne, if only I have myself space to read all your articles when they come into my inbox… but the heading in this one really got me as I could relate to it instantly.
Thanks so much Leah for taking the time and space to write … the paradox of being a mother of small children is that the more space we give ourselves and each other, the more opens up, so that there is time for what is needed … I know this deeply, and do my best to practise it now, with no perfection expected, of myself or others … such a change … but maybe that is because I now get sleep!
So much of what you say resonates within myself and my experience to date – not necessarily related to the practice of medicine! I’ve just started a new job, and bringing those moments of pause, where the understanding that there is a whole lot more to life for everyone, not just me, but for the patients I see brings back that connection to spaciousness you so well describe. I too love to listen to what people have to say, and I will be keen to develop my own efficiency when space is what is adhered to, rather than time.
Thank you Stephanie, yes, the paradox is that when you surrender to space, time opens up, rather than compressing us as it does when we make it all about time … good luck with practising that as a new intern and let me know how you go!
I’d loved reading your experience from when you were younger to now, and can relate in many ways to all that you have shared…besides the operating part of course. Reading your words in itself is very spacious Anne, and super inspiring. I particularly liked this “It is all one life, and we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves and not just go home and dump our day on our families or bury it in food or drown it in drink or numb it with all manner of distraction and numbing devices that we have at our disposal these days.”