Lessons From Year One As A Boston Doctor

Doctors have to find work-life balance, too.

I just finished my first year as a doctor in Boston, one filled with some of the most difficult and profound moments I’ve experienced since first deciding to pursue a career in medicine. Along the way, I’ve learned important life lessons, including my ability (and inability) to alleviate suffering. If you’re starting in Boston this fall as a student or as a doctor, hopefully these lessons will help you along the way.

1. Resolving to Choose Not to Choose

If my first year in Boston reinforced anything, it’s that life never stops or slows, not even for something as unrelenting as residency training. The things that mattered before and that will continue to matter after, like family, friends, and loved ones; personal passions; and social, spiritual, and cultural commitments, all need my attention, period.

Yes, the amount of time and energy I could invest in the things that are important to me personally decreased last year. But to sustain them at all, I had to choose not to choose, and instead just do. I made an uncompromising habit out of webcamming with my significant other every night. I made sure to make time for overseas family and non-medical friends. And I also set aside time each day for writing (something I love to do). Early on, when I debated day-to-day whether I had the time for these things, I was more inconsistent. But by choosing not to choose with the important things, I did the things that mattered most, became more productive, and found myself more satisfied with my priorities.

2. Resolving to Live in the Present

There’s a reason Boston is known for its creativity and innovation. It has countless educational opportunities that attract young people who are on their way to bright, promising futures. The potential danger with too much professional forward-looking, however, is that it can minimize the value of living in the present. It is prudent for students and professionals, including doctors, to remain conscientious of next steps and future directions. But focusing too far downstream can sometimes obscure the lessons in front us.

Some of the most important professional moments, at least in medicine – the ones that can motivate, inform, and even alter our courses – happen in the present, often unexpectedly. Cherishing the present may merely affirm someone’s path while it significantly changes another’s. It will look different for each person. Nonetheless, one of the best things people can do for tomorrow is to make the most of today.

3. Resolving to Synthesize Happiness

Most of us know from experience that attitude matters. It shapes the way we perceive and experience the world around us, and in turn how happy we feel. This is certainly true and important for new doctors like myself, who face growing patient volume and less and less time to do increasing amounts of complex work. When hours are long and work is thankless, as they can be in residency, it can be easy to become negative.

When clinic sessions run long or extra hospital admissions at the end of a shift substantially lengthen the workday, cynicism can beckon. But I believe, as a Harvard psychologist does, that there’s a better way. Instead of allowing circumstances to dictate happiness, we can “synthesize” it by framing situations appropriately. I began to feel happier when I viewed extra late-day admissions as additional learning opportunities in the era of work-hour restrictions instead of as barriers to getting home. This is not a mental slight of hand or rearrangement of cognitive deck chairs.

As I learned through a grueling schedule last year, synthetic happiness is as viable a kind as any, and more adaptive and positive to boot.