Managing Your Practice

Escaping the daily grind


Few films have universal appeal these days, but one that comes close is the 1993 classic Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist is trapped in a time loop, doomed to living the same day over and over for many years.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

One reason that this story resonates with so many, I think, is that we are all living a similar life. Not as a same-day loop, of course; but each week seems eerily similar to the last, as does each month, each year – on and on, ad infinitum. That’s why it is so important, every so often, to step out of the “loop” and reassess the bigger picture.

I write this reminder every couple of years because it’s so easy to lose sight of the overall landscape among the pressures of our daily routines. Sooner or later, no matter how dedicated we are, the grind gets to all of us, leading to fatigue, irritability, and a progressive decline in motivation. And we are too busy to sit down and think about what we might do to break that vicious cycle. This is detrimental to our own well being, as well as that of our patients.

There are many ways to maintain your intellectual and emotional health, but here’s how I do it: I take individual days off (average of one a month) to catch up on journals or taking a CME course; or to try something new – something I’ve been thinking about doing “someday, when there is time” – such as a guitar, bass, or sailing lessons; or a long weekend away with my wife.

And until COVID-19 put a temporary stop to them earlier this year, we have embarked on at least one longer adventure each year, some of which have been shared in these pages. Our 2019 expedition to Easter Island remains among the most memorable, and fulfilled a dream I’ve had since I read Thor Heyerdahl’s Aku Aku in grade school. As we explored the giant stone moai – which are found nowhere else in the world ­– I didn’t have the time – or the slightest inclination – to worry about the office. But I did accumulate some great ideas – practical, medical, and literary. Original thoughts are hard to chase down during the daily grind; but in a refreshing environment, they will seek you out. When our trip was over, I returned ready to take on the world, and my practice, anew.

I know how some of you feel about “wasting” a day – or, God forbid, a week. Patients might go elsewhere while you’re gone, and every day the office is idle you “lose money.” That whole paradigm is wrong. You bring in a given amount of revenue per year – more on some days, less on other days, none on weekends and vacations; it all averages out in the end.

Besides, this is much more important than money; this is breaking the routine, clearing the cobwebs, living your life. Trust me, your practice will still be there when you return. And while COVID-19 will not last forever, there are plenty of other “sharpeners” while we wait.

More than once I’ve recounted the story of Alex Müller and J. Georg Bednorz, the Swiss Nobel Laureates whose superconductivity research ground to a halt in 1986. The harder they pressed, the more elusive progress became. So Müller decided to take a break to read a new book on ceramics – a subject that had always interested him.

Nothing could have been less relevant to his work, of course; ceramics are among the poorest conductors known. But in that lower-pressure environment, Müller realized that a unique property of ceramics might apply to their project.

Back in the lab, the team created a ceramic compound that became the first successful “high-temperature” superconductor, which in turn triggered an explosion of research leading to breakthroughs in computing, electricity transmission, magnetically-elevated trains, and many applications yet to be realized.

Sharpening your saw may not change the world, but it will change you; any nudge out of your comfort zone will give you fresh ideas and help you look at seemingly insoluble problems in completely new ways.

And to those who still can’t bear the thought of taking time off, remember the dying words that no one has spoken, ever: “I wish I had spent more time in my office!”

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected].

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