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It Is OK to Do Nothing

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I’m tired of reading about burnout, yet I have many started essays scribed on the subject. How could I not? The theme permeates my soul. The issue percolates into every decision.

I write this early on a Monday morning. Much of the working world still slumbers. I look at my list. Rather than pat myself on the back for a well spent weekend, I inwardly grumble that I have so much more to get done. Summer days are waning, yet I did not use my pool. I was too busy accomplishing tasks. But what undertaking could be more important than recharging my batteries?

It is ok to do nothing. This is a lesson that many physicians have failed to learn. Friday, after a busy day- YES! It was busy- five meetings, on different sides of the hill, emails answered, the full Monty!- I was wiped out tired!- I came home and sat on my couch. Naturally, I had the LIST. I had the full inbox. I have things to read. I have things to study. I the typical litany of household chores. Nonetheless, I was just sitting! Responsibilities aside, I could have been embracing literature, or exercising. There are two non-work related time sinks for which I feel guilty either doing or not doing. Doesn’t matter. Nope. I was sitting. Sitting. No book in my hand. The television was off. I was playing scrabble with the computer. No one could argue there is any benefit of that activity. Oh, the self-reproach! How dare I waste precious moments!

I texted my daughter that I was in “sloth mode.” I googled images of sloths. They’re kind of cute. As the sunset and the room dimmed, I considered standing up to turn on the lights. Inactivity was delightful.

Are there problems with the scenario?

One: the need to justify how tired I was, and how busy I was last Friday. It’s OK to take a Friday evening off regardless. Normal people take an evening off, even a week night off. Not physicians! Somehow, I am conditioned to feel the I need to EARN a special reprieve.

Two: The LIST! I always have a list. Never can I put my feet up and say, I am caught up. That may not be all physicians, however I suspect given the pervasive OCD, it is close to true. You may not carry around a moleskine or a 3x5 card with little boxes, but I suspect in your brain you are ticking off chores. There is that need to accomplish, always the need to accomplish, one more thing before I sit down.

Three: Why do I feel guilty exercising and reading? Because I am not working or studying! Why am I, so much closer to retirement than starting work, still studying? Recertifications! Why do I need to recertify in Family Medicine and Clinical Informatics and Sports Medicine and Adolescent Medicine? I could easily drop at least the last two… but that isn’t how we are programmed. Every minute I should spend studying! Reading! Improving! Working!

Four: What is wrong with playing a game? There is an entire industry around online games such as Scrabble. Sure, there are more productive things to do, like laundry, but it’s ok. Why is it not ok? Because I am a doctor. I am not allowed to chill. I am wasting my most precious resource: time.

Thus, on Monday morning, despite moving mountains on Saturday and Sunday, I am chastising myself for those tasks that I didn’t accomplish. I have so much to learn. Perhaps I can start by learning how to relax. Let me mark time on my Outlet calendar for “sloth mode.”

Lisa Masson, MD, is a board-certified primary care physician in Los Angeles. Her passion for primary care motivated her to take on an active role in clinical informatics. She is a 2018–19 Doximity Author and a proud mother of three daughters.

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