Work SMARTER, Not Harder:  Tips ad Tools for Getting your Priorities Straight

The first step on any journey is having a direction to follow.  When you decided to become a physician, you no doubt sought out advice from trusted mentors:  advisors, other physicians, professors, even peers who had traveled that road before you.  But becoming a physician likely started as an abstract thought that became all consuming; somewhere along the line, your everyday life revolved around school, training, procedures…. you get the picture.  Now that the end is in sight, you find yourself again at a crossroads and in need of direction.  Fortunately for you, you’ve likely already got an inside track on what you need to get moving on the right path.

Work Life vs Home Life

One of the daily challenges in medicine is deciding how to organize your day.  No matter if you are rounding on a large hospital census or seeing patients in a primary care office, a crucial skill all physicians need to possess is the ability to organize.  Whether it be time, data, or patient load, physicians have an innate skill to categorize what needs to be done and in what order these tasks need to be accomplished.  It’s certainly possible that you were born with these abilities, however, you’ve likely picked up a few tricks along the way that work best for you.  You’ve spent years honing them into an almost unconscious routine that you do every day to survive the rigors of practicing modern medicine.  But what if you were asked to make the same complex yet snap decisions regarding your personal life?  For many physicians, this might sound like a daunting task.  But it doesn’t have to be.   Just as you have tools to organize your day, it’s time to apply those skills to the most important part of your day:  your home life.

Setting Ground Rules

When you were accepted to medical school, you may have had an idea in mind of what type of medicine you wanted to practice.  It’s also possible that you went into your medical training with an open mind, taking the time to try out each specialty as they came your way to get a feel of what was the best fit for you and your personality.  Though different approaches, both are valid options for physicians at the start of their career and both involve utilizing the same skill sets in decision making:  gathering information, applying a priority list specific to your needs, and deciding how you feel about a decision.  You’ve likely spent hours posing well-thought out questions, observing residents, fellows, and attendings on your rotations and asking yourself “does this seem like a good match for me?”  After all, this is one of the most important decisions of your life; you should put time and effort into figuring out what type of medicine is the best fit for you and your skill set.  For all the energy we put into choosing a career path, we often overlook the most crucial question: “is this field a good match for my life?”  Again, all of a sudden, you’re seeing lots of trees while standing in the middle of the forest.  So how do you find your way out of the woods?  By using the map, you forgot you packed in the first place.  Apply the powers of observation you’ve spent years honing in school and really look at those physicians you’re spending time with.  How many hours are they working?  Do they seem happy?  Did their expectations of what their field would be like meet their reality or is it entirely different in a positive or negative way.  Take the information you’ve gleaned and use your organization prowess to establish what the ground rules are for your life as a physician.  You’ve learned to gather information and organize it like a pro; it’s time for you to use those skills for your personal needs.


Anyone who’s been through the rigors of medical training has heard the phrase “you need to work smarter, not harder.”  While there’s no denying that medicine is hard work, there are always ways to do the job more effectively and efficiently.  One of those is by using SMART goals as a tool.  SMART goals are an instrument often used to organize projects, goals, and ideas into an achievable and workable format.  Although powerful, there is one part missing from this instrument that is important to us as humans:  the need for reward.   It’s a lot easier to make sacrifices and stick to them if there’s a shiny prize at the end of the process.  When making your priority list, make the decisions SMARTER:
Specific:  vague goals are easy to ignore and impossible to achieve; be as detail oriented as possible when crafting your goal.

Measurable:  just like tracking A1C’s in your diabetic patients is a way to assess quality, making your outcomes measurable will allow you to keep track of your progress.

Attainable:  set yourself up for success.  Be reasonable and realistic in your priorities; if not, you run the risk of setting yourself up for failure, which can easily start a spiral of self-doubt and negative thinking.

Results Oriented:  this is finding your why.  Without having direction or passion, no matter what you put on your list, you won’t be motivated to achieve it.

Time-based:  by setting a stop date, it makes your wish list a reality.

Every Day:  what are you doing today to achieve your goals?  Nothing worthy is ever born out of sporadic effort.  Even if you think it’s a small step, take time every day to invest in your outcomes.

Rewarded:  what are you doing to celebrate your sacrifice?  It doesn’t need to be elaborate, but it does need to be acknowledged.  Validation for hard work goes a long way.

Finding Your Path While Enjoying the Ride

The old adage of stopping to smell the roses is often lost on those of us who pursue medical training.  We are so very focused on making it through the next rotation, getting charts done, finishing patient care hours, that we forget to stop and look around us.  Yes, becoming a physician can be a long and difficult journey.  But taking time for yourself, cultivating relationships at both home and at work, and being clear in your priorities is vital to refilling your cup and being well.  You will need these moments and connections when that road seems long and dark; be mindful to find your why every day: it matters.

To read more on Life, Money and Career Priorities by author Cory S. Fawcett in the Career and Life Planning Guidebook for Medical Residents, follow this link:     Life, Money and Career Priorities

About Author:
Dr. Megan Vermeulen is the Director of Content Strategies at and Associate Program Director at Rowan University SOM Family Medicine Residency Program.