It’s Time for Recess
by Dr. Greg Psaltis

Like most of my elementary school peers, what I liked best about school was recess. I was a very good student, so the classes didn’t really bother me, but I must confess that as the time approached for our playground romps, it almost never failed to excite me. I loved the sense of being out from behind my desk and I loved the feeling of not being under the gun with tests, showing my work, trying to hide when the teacher asked a question and all the other pressures that elementary school students endure. Of course, I now look back and smile because I can hardly fathom that anything happening in those early school years could have been considered pressures. They were certainly not the stresses that I now experience as a private practicing dentist. Gone are the tests, but now I have staff demands. Gone is that showing of my work, but now I deal with the clinical excellence that my patients demand. Gone is hiding from teachers’ questions, but now I have charts to review and phone calls to make. It all makes me want to hide again. All of this and there isn’t even a daily recess to anticipate!

As I work with dentists on a consulting basis, I am being asked frequently about how to find balance in a professional life. As dentists enjoy the success of their practices, they also find that recess is sorely missed. As adults, we don’t call it recess any more. We call it finding balance. It isn’t always easy, but as I ponder the economic crisis that our country is facing, it strikes me that there is an enormous potential win that could come out of this downturn. I believe that for all of the dentists who wish they had more time to create the balance they so sorely miss, opportunity is knocking on your doors. Call me crazy, but I think that a gift that we are seeing in these times is that we can reclaim our recess during this recession.

If the economists prove to be correct, all phases of the economy will be slowing down this year. This doesn’t seem difficult to predict as we hear about potential double-digit unemployment, business failures and layoffs from some of the biggest and strongest companies. In the state of Washington, the government (which is the biggest employer in my home town of Olympia) is paring back. So as I gaze into my crystal ball, I foresee current clients losing their jobs or, as the crunch hits harder, opting out of dental care. From a dentist’s point of view, there’s nothing more important than a healthy mouth. From the public’s point of view, putting food on the table and paying the rent and utilities may have a higher priority. That crown may wait and those braces just could be put off until the times get better. Uh-oh.

Rather than expand on this gloomy picture, I prefer to see what the current situation may bring to us instead of what it might take from us. If, in fact, our patient load is going to decrease this year, doesn’t it make sense to plan accordingly and capitalize on the opportunity rather than sitting in your office all day, stewing about the holes in the schedule? I believe it makes perfect sense. So how is it possible to do that?

My first recommendation is to sit down with a significant other and make a list of things that you either wish you were doing right now (but don’t have time) or that always wished you could do. These could be small things or big things, but the more complete the list, the better. Once you have honestly established a reasonable number of items on your wish list, the next step is to consider why it is that you have failed to actualize them. In particular, is it money holding you back or is it time? With this simple exercise, I believe that many dentists may recognize that their lives are more constrained in the area of time than money. We are blessed to have a profession that remunerates us very well. Unless your unmet wish list includes items such as a Lear jet, my guess is that virtually anything you really want is within your means. At the same time, it can’t be a surprise at all to discover that the perceived enemy (time) is the culprit. As I said above, many dentists tell me that they are seeking balance in their lives and that their office and work dominate their lives. In other words, they spend too much time and energy making more money than they need for what they really want. Voilá, the solution is at hand. Suddenly, those holes in the appointment book could morph into new possibilities. They could be piano lessons, a longer lunch break with a good book in hand or, possibly even an entire day per month dedicated to spending time in your children’s school, playing golf or time with your spouse or friends.

I would recommend to start simple. Among many other great ideas, Steven Covey has a wonderful way of planning your activities based on roles that you have in your life. He created a calendar/planner that lets you see in a clear fashion how your time is spent or planned in those roles. The calendar worked well for me when I realized that I am a husband, father, dentist, speaker and home owner. Covey recommends that you segregate your to do list into appropriate roles you play in your life. When you have done that, you will identify where you are committing your time…. or not. In particular if you map out your week and the hours dedicated to your roles, you may discover the shortcomings in one or more of them. Now you are on the path. Knowing where you are headed (another Covey concept—he calls it “begin with the end in mind”) is key to planning your time so that you can move in the direction you want. If you aren’t aware of what you want, it’s much harder to get it.

By using these two simple methods, it becomes a matter of determining your plan for spending your time in a manner that will decrease your sense of too much time at the office. Consider how you feel at the end of a vacation-- relaxed, refreshed and ready to go. Is it really necessary to go to Hawaii to get that feeling? I think not. By literally planning parts of your free time to satisfy your unmet needs, you may realize that rejuvenating yourself is available more often than you think. In a similar fashion, planning your work schedule with adequate time to fulfill your goals, you might discover the chances that you feel you’ve been missing. For example, if it seems that cutting a half day off your regular weekly schedule would give you the time to complete a project, pursue French lessons or attend a play with your spouse, doesn’t that seem to be more satisfying than worrying at your office?

And now comes the question of money. How is a practice supposed to maintain the level of productivity with this cut back plan? This is a crucial question to the long-term success of a dental practice. The answer lies in the dentist’s own ability to control costs. Let me quickly add that I am not referring here to costs to run the practice. I am referring to the costs incurred voluntarily in one’s personal life. As we continue to amass more and more debt, the ability to remain flexible in our work schedule diminishes. As many banks and other businesses have discovered over the past few months, it is not possible to sustain business by spending money that isn’t there. This simple concept seems to have escaped the attention of many CEOs of previously rock-solid companies. Can this same message not be applied to our personal finances? When we choose to leverage ourselves out with bigger and better toys or more possessions, it becomes incumbent on us to continuously perform at a high level at work. However, as fiscal prudence is exercised, we are again led back to our original insight of lacking time more often than money. In short, we, as dentists can certainly maintain a very high standard of living with the income we earn. I am not unaware of the high start-up costs for a new practice and I am also not unaware of the expense of an education. In short, I am sympathetic to a new practitioner who has significant debt and is less likely to take time off. Having completed a major office remodel (including installing digital radiography) I am intimately aware of the ongoing expenses of maintaining an up-to-date practice. Having said that, I believe the majority of dentists are actually the ones who have had the opportunity to create fiscal success. For this group, it is unfortunate that the potential for free time escapes them.  

My hope is that no reader focuses unduly on any negativity in these thoughts. It is always important to recognize that some things are out of our immediate control and the national economy is one of them. I have no doubts that dental practices will survive this episode and I am equally certain that there are numerous strategies for promoting your office to insure its continuing level of profitability. For those who choose to pursue those ends, I have no argument. However, the possibility of creating balance at a time when extra effort will be required to maintain status quo seems not only reasonable, but attractive, in particular for any dentists who feel that they are controlled by their practices. Dentistry has gotten through several crises during my 28 years in private practice. We have dealt with increasing encroachment of insurance controls, OSHA regulations, internet awareness, political pressures, the bursting of the tech bubble and numerous other threats to our profession. I do not foresee that this temporary economic downturn will spell the demise of dentistry. I am also realistic and recognize the potential for a slowdown. The dentists who will do well during this time are the ones who are flexible and determine ways of not just surviving, but personally thriving. The opportunity that one can seize is to accept what is and make the most of it. I’m thinking it’s time for recess again. How about you?

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