Work Life Balance for Physicians – Three Steps to Saying NO with Elegance and Grace

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

 work life balance for doctors how to say noWork Life Balance for Doctors – the Power of a Positive “NO”

Choosing to go to medical school and become a Physician is a lot like inviting an 800 pound gorilla to be a permanent house guest. Gorillas are big, take up a lot of space, eat all your food and are not house trained … so there are messes to clean up every week.

Your quality of life - for you and your family - will depend in large part on a skill you will never learn in your medical education; how to say the two letter magic word of life balance. That word is "NO".

In this blog post, let me teach you when, where and how to say, "NO" with some elegance and grace.

Is it time to Tweak, Reset or Even Escape Your Current Practice?
The Practice Reset Online Workshop for Physicians

Left to its own devices, your medical career will completely dominate your life
- just as if you had taken in a wild gorilla as a roommate. Your education and your practice will reliably:

  • Take up every spare minute
  • Use all your energy, patience, empathy and attention
  • Mess up your other relationships by crowding them out or interrupting at the worst possible moment

Work Life Balance can go out the window very quickly.
The Career that was supposed to give you a great life … quickly becomes the entire focus of your life … and physician Burnout starts nipping at your heels.

All is not lost …

Just like a gorilla can be trained to perform amazing acts of patience and skill … your career can also be corralled and tamed. It takes the deliberate use of just one word.

Work Life Balance depends on how often you say “NO”

work life balance for physicians just say noSaying “NO” in the right ways at the right times and in the right amounts is how you “Tame the Gorilla” and restore meaningful work life balance.

Even though “NO” is the key to the rebalancing process …

Saying “NO” so that Gorilla will listen is a Three Step Process.


Step One:
Put YOU First

The patient cannot always come first. That is a recipe for burnout. Life Balance for physicians can only happen when you say “YES” to the most important things in your life OUTSIDE OF YOUR CAREER - before you do anything else.

New call-to-action

Whenever you are not with patients, Work Life Balance depends putting your Life First.

You can’t just give it lip service here. Your actions have to match your words. Remember, we are dealing with a 800 pound Gorilla … he doesn’t care what you SAY. He wants to know what you are going to DO to keep him under control. He needs firm boundaries or he will just muscle the rest of your life to the side and take whatever he wants. When that happens, any pretense at work life balance goes out the window.

Here is the most effective way to show the Gorilla you mean business  …

  • Reflect on what you want in your life outside of Medicine. The Gorilla will get his needs met automatically. You must be clear on what you want outside of medicine to have any work life balance at all
  • What relationships, experiences, hobbies, personal care activities?
  • Make a list of the ones that are really important to you.
    [This is equivalent to your “Bucket List” except we are going to put this to very good use right away]
  • Write them down and keep this list handy. These are the things you want to keep the Gorilla from messing up or crowding out.

We recommend a prioritizing process, proven by our physician coaching clients,
called the Ideal Job Description

It may have been a while since you thought about these things …  that Gorilla can take up all the air in the room … so here are some examples of things I have seen on this work life balance list before …

- Spend regular time with your children
- Work out three times a week
- Take a vacation to (put your #1 destination here)
- Take your significant other to that new restaurant downtown

You get the idea …

Make your work life balance list now … I hear the Gorilla rummaging around out in the kitchen … you never know when he will walk in and try to take over again.

New call-to-action

Step Two:

Look out several months and write in your non-work priorities on your calendar. Imagine you are setting them in stone.

We recommend a weekly scheduling process called the Schedule HACK

You say “YES” to your own personal work life balance …
and show the Gorilla your resolve …
by Scheduling Your Most Important Non-Work Activities FIRST

Get your Calendar and do it NOW
before the Gorilla comes back !!


If you don’t do this here’s what always happens to work life balance …

That darn Gorilla is going to run all over you. Why? Because your schedule is empty. The Gorilla makes the normal assumption you have nothing else better to do. Here’s the tragedy.

Your spouse, your kids and your health don’t like that gorilla any more than you do. When they don’t get a spot on your calendar … they begin to feel they are not a priority. They don’t really care or notice what you say either. Do they have face time blocked off in your calendar or not? No calendar time = no work life balance.

Here’s the challenge. Don’t stop reading this article … just because you understand it – you “get” this concept. That would be a huge missed opportunity. If you are in need of more work life balance and your family and health in need of some attention, grab your pen and calendar NOW and take the action you must take to defend yourself from that marauding ape!

[ see the full Work Life Balance Tools Library page here ]

When you schedule your Important Non-Work Activities on your calendar First … here’s when you can use “NO” to build work life balance with some grace.

Step Three:
Say “NO” to the Gorilla with Power and Skill

Now you have said YES to your larger life

  • You have a Solid Reason to say “NO” to the Gorilla
  • You have a Higher Priority ALREADY ON YOUR SCHEDULE
  • You use “NO” to Defend your already existing calendar of priorities

So when the Gorilla wants to knock your work life balance out of whack by asking you to take some extra call or do some more charts at a time when you have already booked …

- dinner with your daughter or son
- date night with your significant other
- a hot yoga class
- a trip to Machu Picchu

You can say “NO” with a smile on your face.

“I’m so sorry … I Have Another Very Important Activity Already Scheduled at That Exact Time.” [smile!]

It is amazing how quickly you can start training your Gorilla [and get your work life balance back] when you follow these three steps every month:

1) Set Your Non-Work Priorities FIRST

2) Get Them on Your Calendar NOW

3) Learn to Say “NO” With a Smile


You may have heard of this exact work life balance principle explained as the “Big Rocks Theory” I first heard from Steven Covey, the author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Here is a video of his Big Rocks First work life balance demonstration.



Here’s to you restoring your own work life balance by putting the big rocks in first.


Please leave a comment below.

What’s on Your Work Life Balance list today ?

What is your favorite way to say, "NO".



Tags: stop physician burnout, physician work life balance, physician communication skills