How to have a life, while saving lives…

Lately I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed. I’ve carried a nagging, overriding sense of anxiety, particularly regarding work-related assignments, deadlines, and expectations.

I wish for the weekend to hurry up and arrive, and then spend my days off worried because I didn’t accomplish my “to do” list.
Obligations are piling up, with their ceaseless associated expectations, responsibilities, and stress. My enthusiasm for my career has diminished, and even those activities I typically engage in for leisure, such as writing, have become a chore.

I searched for information on I how to more appropriately cope with the pressures I’m facing, and came across the “Eisenhower Principle,” which is a systematic and methodical approach to time-management skills and tackling projects.

In a 1954 speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower quoted Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The key to successfully implementing the Eisenhower Principle is to accurately distinguish whether a task is urgent or important. Doing so requires having a working definition for each term.

Important activities are those that allow you to achieve personal or professional goals and are associated your own values and aspirations. Think: Writing the book you’ve promised yourself you would start, taking a trip to Europe, learning to ski.

Urgent activities demand immediate attention, are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals, and are of a narrow focus. Think: Returning specific phone calls and e-mails, responding to deadlines, paying your bills on time.

Urgent tasks instill a sense of reactivity—we must handle the problem not right now, but five minutes ago! We often approach urgent issues in a defensive, rushed, and hurried manner.

Important tasks are often sidelined for the urgent ones. Yet we are inundated with the message that we need to cultivate the important tasks to make us feel most fulfilled.

The Eisenhower principle is simple: Each action you are handed is assigned to one of four categories:

Important and urgent: e.g., crises, deadlines, and problems

Important but not urgent: e.g., relationships, planning, and recreation

Urgent but not important: e.g., interruptions, meetings, and activities

Neither urgent nor important: e.g., time wasters, pleasant activities, and trivia

I’ve had success applying the Eisenhower principle to my personal endeavors. However, I find it nearly impossible to adhere to the guidelines in my professional life. In veterinary oncology, urgency is the overriding, pervading theme.

It’s cancer; therefore a diagnosis must be made immediately. It’s cancer; therefore testing must be accomplished as soon as possible. It’s cancer; therefore therapy must be instituted at the earliest point of intervention possible. Waiting is not an option, even when I truly believe it’s in the patient’s best interests to wait.

I am expected to feel the same way about the diagnosis as the owner/primary veterinarian/etc. does, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, in some instances, all this perceived urgency does is lead to further complications.

Appointments are booked without ensuring the proper diagnostic equipment is available, or cases are scheduled to see me when they should be sent to surgery first. When we rush to set up an appointment, I may not have all the pertinent referral information and recommend repeating tests simply because I lack the data. Biopsy results are pending, yet owners are calling to be seen immediately so I can provide treatment options. I face these scenarios on a daily basis.

My goal should be to spend time on the important but not urgent tasks. I need to cultivate growth within my marriage and in my relationships with my friends and family. I need to divert more attention to my hobbies and my passions. The remainder should theoretically fall naturally into place once the foundation is put down.

However, it’s extremely difficult to excel at the important aspects of my life while simultaneously supporting a career where urgency abounds. I must put the needs of others above my own, whether those needs are urgent, important, or neither.

Perhaps this is a consequence of choosing a career in medicine—a profession where I am entrusted to provide care and compassion towards others at all times. The needs of the person or animal experiencing illness are the only thing in the world that matters to them.

You would think the President of the United States would feel more pressure than a veterinary oncologist, but Eisenhower’s famous quote implied he had no trouble keeping the urgent separate from the important.

I bet he never sat across from a distraught owner of a pet newly diagnosed with cancer.

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