Work & Life Balance: A Nurse's Impossible Dream?

From By Elizabeth Hanink

Work-life balance is more than good time management. It means having a professional life and personal life that are integrated so well that each part enhances the other. That takes self-knowledge and self-discipline—two traits that we need to cultivate if we ever hope to achieve the balance that brings enjoyment along with achievement. It is a life-long process that requires daily fine-tuning.

All sorts of people have trouble with work-life balance. What makes nurses especially vulnerable is that so much of our professional life is beyond our control. We can’t change the fact that most nursing jobs involve tricky schedules, heavy work-loads, and tons of variables that can shift by the hour, yes, even by the minute.­ Most of us are additionally burdened by wanting to give good care.Nurses Talking

But not having the power to manage many aspects of our jobs doesn’t mean we have no control. Nurses can be like the sleeping elephant, unaware of its strength. If you want to make your dreams come true, wake up to your own power, to the role you play in your own life. Taking control is the key. If you live in a constant state of reaction, you give control to someone else. Time management only enters the equation when you use it as your tool to gain control: over a day, a month, a life-time.

Remember Nursing 101

Where to start? You don’t need a new system of thought. What you learned in nursing 101 about nursing process will serve quite well here. Remember how assess, diagnose, plan, implement, and evaluate worked for all nursing problems. It works for the big picture of your life, too and helps you get the minute by minute obstacles out of the way so the bigger pieces fall into place. It does you no good to manage a perfect work day, every day even, if there is nothing left for family or fun or personal growth.

Let’s start with assessment. What do you want—what is important to you? Knowing that, and it can take some time to figure it out, makes all the difference. Do you want, in the next hour, to have all your charting completed or do you want to be sure that all your patients have a clean, neat room with trash picked up and tray tables cleared? Do you want in five years to have an advanced practice degree or do you want weekends free for hobbies? Do you want to own a home or vacation every year in a different country? All of these are commendable goals but which are yours? Only you really know.

The second step is diagnosis. What is keeping you from achieving your ambitions? Are you stuck in the land of “after this happens?” as in I’ll get to my charting after I have rechecked all the rooms. Or I’ll start school after I feel more settled at work? Or could you be like the man in the Chinese proverb waiting for roasted duck to fly into his mouth? You will wait a very, very long time. The important ingredient is taking responsibility for what is lacking. This step does not allow placing blame anywhere but on you.

No time to linger. Now that you know what you want and why you don’t have it, move onto the third step, planning. This involves setting priorities. Out of all the things you want, what is most important? It might be different every day, it might vary by what age you are at a given time, or it might vary by what is realistically possible given your circumstances. If you already have three young children, then the Peace Corps is not feasible.

Your self-knowledge that came through assessment is critical in this step. And because you are employed as a nurse, again, you might not have total control minute by minute. But taking your theoretical goal for today as wanting to get all the charting done on time, how are you going to achieve that with a last minute admission? Take the time to assess where you are and plan. Write it down, even if jotting down will delay you, what 15 seconds. Maybe the new goal will have to be leaving only 15 minutes late instead of the usual hour that a last minute admission would ordinarily require.

Now it’s time to implement and here is where some time management skills can play a part. If you are lacking these, get some. Study the nurses around you who do manage to get it all to happen, because some tricks do not come naturally. Not every experienced nurse is savvy in these skills but most who last in a hectic hospital environment have a clue, and you can learn from them.
There’s a ton of specific information out there.

Role Models

Kathy Quan, RN, has written a book on time management just for nurses, Tips and Strategies for Effective Time Management for Nurses. You can download it as an ebook. If you are a new graduate, try The Everything New Nurse Book also by Kathy Quan(www. Her website and those of others are full of suggestions. If you can get work under control, you will have much more energy left for the rest of life. And don’t wait to get started on that. Life doesn’t wait.

Don’t forget, there are nurses who manage to have long careers meeting interesting challenges and still live interesting lives outside of work. What is the secret, you might ask.

It isn’t a secret says Tilda Shaloff, RN. You have to set priorities (remember planning?). She uses a daily written list (no Blackberry for her) that she often formulates while walking her dog. It contains, every day, day in and day out, 17 items. The number 17 has private significance for her. Your number could be different. The act of writing the list helps her organize what has priority and what can wait.

She also delegates. Her children have always been paid to help around the house and her husband has always been willing to participate fully in chores. She also, and this is key, arranges her clinical work schedule to suit the other important things in her life—her writing and public speaking. Being the author of several books and a very popular motivational speaker, Shaloff says, takes tremendous energy. But these activities are important to her and so she makes the effort to have the time and strength. It is a conscious choice. She can do speaking and writing and work in an ICU but not other things. You need to make the same choices. It might mean saying no to being room mother or working the polls on election day. Or it might mean having a clean as opposed to an immaculate house. Make your life and your job work for you.

Kathleen Singleton, RN, MSN, also makes choices. As the president of the American Association of Medical Surgical Nurses she has a serious obligation on a national stage plus the obligations of her “day job.” For her the secret is, of course, organization, and she is very dependent, she says, on any electronic help she can get. But the real key for her is negotiation and flexibility. Singleton makes her day job work for her.

She has had scads of practice at this; she worked over the years from nursing attendant to MSN all while working full-time. She thinks any nurse can do it. Instead of moaning about them, make the weekend and shift obligations work for you, she says. Take advantage of your ability to trade shifts. Work with your fellow employees and supervisors to have everyone gain. Negotiate your holiday obligations in such a way that the schedule then allows you to do what is vital to your happiness. In Singleton’s case, her employer, an affiliate of the Cleveland Clinics, allows her maximum flexibility in scheduling in exchange for her willingness to be quite flexible in what is required of her.

Keep in mind: achievement without enjoyment is not the way to balance. Taking control is. Plan, choose, and readjust. Balance is achieved both daily and over the long haul and can be different for each of us each day. Adjust as needed, both the goal, and the implementation because there is more than one way to success.

A Jar Full of Rocks

Here’s a strategy to visualize how, without planning and taking control, you can work very hard all day or even all your life and still have no accomplishments and no satisfaction. Picture a large jar like one that old-fashioned delis kept pickles in. Or the type that holds pretzels from Costco. Fill it as full as you can with large rocks. Now fill in the other spaces with small pebbles. Next add sand. Isn’t it amazing how much sand fits into all the nooks and crannies between the rocks and pebbles? Last fill with water. Quite a bit goes in, doesn’t it, despite all those rocks.

But stop. What if you had poured the water in first? It would be impossible to get even one large rock in without spilling everywhere. Now think of all the things you want to do, today and in life. Make sure the large goals, the large rocks, are what you really want from life — to have more education, to write a book, to own a house, to run a business. You choose. Then fill in with the small pebbles. Do they support the rocks? If you took away three pebbles---a ho-hum hobby, a favorite TV show, or say time on Facebook, would you have room for another large rock? And what about the sand in your life? Is it helping you toward your goal or is it just getting between your toes? Are you drowning in all the water that fills up your life? Is the water keeping you from getting any large rocks into the jar?

As for those nurses like Singleton or Shaloff who work, have a rich personal life, and still have time to pursue advanced degrees or run side businesses? Look at what they don’t do. You will probably find they have eliminated those things that don’t move them toward their goals. They don’t know about the latest episode of American Idol. Maybe they don’t have the latest French tips from the manicurist. They dare to bring store-bought to the potluck. They have made the choice that these things matter less than achieving their goals.

You need to do the same. Just remember. To avoid the pickle jar trap or the “as soon as” trap or any other trap that is robbing you of a good work-life balance, you need to take time now to decide what is important (assess),what is keeping me from it (diagnose) how do I get it from here (plan) and execute. Reassess frequently and adjust as needed. Now you have balance.

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