Veterinary Time Management... are we getting it wrong?
Vet Empowered founder Katie Ford here... and this is an area I love to talk about.
How does that subject make you feel?
Zero judgement on your answer, I’ve had lots of conversations over the years about veterinary time management and it always comes with mixed views. I aim for this blog will be real, compassionate and actionable.
At the start of my career in small animal practice, managing my time felt impossible. There was just so much to do. I believe I overran on nearly every consultation, I was constantly playing catch up and was in a strange moral conflict between doing my best and the piercing eyes on me in the waiting room. Stopping for food was a rare treat, and I became well versed in scoffing down a prawn sandwich from the petrol station on my way to the branch practice. Looking back and reflecting with complete honesty, I told myself I was slow and hoped it would probably get better.
A couple of years later, and I was definitely faster and a more skilled clinician, but I still felt swamped many days. Ironically, I was in a much quieter practice, yet it came with a different set of pressures and my self-imposed standards had become ever higher. Unconsciously I’d come up with some (not necessarily helpful longer term) ways of coping, such as habitually writing my notes up at the end of the day; I still left late, but it was on my terms and without someone tapping their watch in the next room. I had given up my hobbies, which accommodated late finishes and fast food was a convenient staple.
So, what changed for me, and what impact did it have? It wasn’t a single tip or a hack, or a worksheet, but a shift in self-awareness and learning about self-compassion that were the catalysts. This is something we work on wholeheartedly with our community at Vet Empowered and I can’t put into words the impact. We can have all the tools in the shed, but if we don’t think we’re the person to use them, they are often no use to us. I realised I wasn’t the negative voice in my head, and saw the value in checking in on the story I was listening to, meeting it with kindness and considering alternative perspectives. I realised I was valuable, and, although society has made it hard to believe, so are you.
I don’t want this to be wishy-washy, so I’ve honed down three key shifts that were gamechangers as a result of this and impacted on how I managed my day in practice.
1. We can’t manage time, we can only manage tasks
I remember my own coach saying this to me years ago. He was a previous A&E consultant doctor so I knew he understood. In that moment I realised how much of my energy had been going to a resource that wasn’t under my control and was going to pass anyway. I shifted my focus towards priorities - what really need doing today? What could wait until tomorrow? What could I delegate? Everyone is different, but you’ll find strategies from ‘Eat the frog’ to the Eisenhower Matrix out there. You might find lists and brain dumps helpful. Some practice management softwares have task managers built in. It’s about finding the one that helps you.
Notice and let go of all or nothing thinking in veterinary time management
This is a biggie. The invisible, unattainable standard that so many of us have been conditioned is the aim, me included, often doesn’t help us at all. Perfect doesn’t exist. Sometimes this pressure can expand out into how we manage our tasks and time too. We find ourselving having to stick to a ‘perfect’ schedule or have hard fast rules about how the day should work out, or declare it (and us) a failure and not try it (or anything) again.
Often we speak to people who at first pressurise themselves to go from hectic to leaving on time every single night within a few days. Those same people will put things into place, nab themselves two out of four early nights and focus on the two late finishes and proclaim nothing will ever change. Instead, we’d encourage a curious, kind outlook whilst maintaining some flexibility in this complex world of veterinary. Ask yourself: What was different about the nights where you stayed late? What was in your control? Was this an unusual circumstance? Who could help you? Are there any boundaries you’d choose to set? How did staying later affect me? Flexibility, compassion and a growth mindset are valuable for many here.
2. Make time management a WE thing rather than a ME thing.
As I shared above, I previously decided that this was all on me. I was clearly slow. I should do it all by myself. This wasn’t actually true at all. I appreciate and I’m sorry that not all workplace cultures make this easy, but where you can, look at the bigger picture and conversations that can be had. Is there a different system that could be brought in? How can the strengths of the team be identified and utilised? How can you foster a culture of collaboration? If everyone is staying late each night, is there an open discussion to have? Can you trial blocking admin time in the diary? Let’s not be the ones to say no to ourselves.
3. Let’s remember, we are veterinary scientists and we have skills we can use for veterinary time management.
How can we adopt this curious, evidence based approach in our task management?
Let me tell you about a process that I’ve used to excellent effect with myself, with clients and with teams over the years. It’s called an Awareness Week, and it is to gather information for us to use moving forward. I’d only suggest to consider this if it feels right, and it’s really imperative that this is done with curiosity and without self judgement; if now is not the time for you, that’s ok. What do we do? We are observing, with interest and without needing to make big changes yet, to help us make a plan moving forward.
You might find making notes helpful as you go or setting aside some time at the end of the day.
You might choose to use paper, your phone notes or an app. Do this for 5-7days.
Ask the following questions, or any other things you notice:
Where and how was your time used today?
How have you felt across that day? Did anything in particular contribute to that? (Remember, without judgement)
What did you enjoy that day?
What took up most energy?
When, if at all, did you feel in flow? Where the time passes quickly and you feel an energised focus. Did anything contribute to this?
What distractions took you off course?
Not saying that you always can, but could any of the tasks have been delegated? What difference would that have made?
What one thing could have made today ‘better’?
Which self care practices did you utilise today? What difference did they make?
Is there anything you need right now?
Where would you like to give yourself credit today?
What, if anything, was different about today?
After the week is finished, look back over your observations and consider if you notice any common themes. If you forget a day or need to spread the days you observe, that’s ok too - as long as you maintain kindness and curiosity, you can make this work for you.
Write down your observations:
Maybe you notice that you’re in flow when you’re consulting but being asked to take phone calls in between throws you off course.
You might realise that when morning appointments became busy that you stopped writing notes as you went and ended up using a lot of energy remembering details at the end of the day.
When you’re in the consult room with no visible clock, and you find it hard to subtly look at your watch, you often run over.
Perhaps you found making a list and strategy for the day helpful.
Maybe you find yourself always looking common dosages up.
You notice that you always end up doing all the call backs, and that’s frustrating.
Maybe you find typing out notes takes a long time, or hurts your hands.
These observations are absolutely ok, this is about noticing, as we would be in an experiment. We are all always doing the best we can with what we have and know. Reflecting on this might be easier with a friend, loved one, colleague, coach or supporter. Let’s create our hypothesis and strategy and ask:
If you could make a change in one area, which would have the greatest impact?
What could that change look like?
Is it realistic? Would you ask this of a friend with the same resources?
How would you know that change had worked?
How could you set yourself up for success in making that happen?
What obstacles might you come across, and how might you traverse these?
When will you check back in?
Could you help keep yourself accountable?
Changes don’t have to be big - you’re also allowed to advocate yourself. Looking at the above examples perhaps:
Someone might decide that their new found awareness of skipping notes when it gets busy leads them to note down bare minimum details and fill in the gaps later on, using less energy.
Maybe someone else decides to create a cheat-sheet of common drug dosages and has it on the desktop.
You might have an open conversation with your team about how the callbacks are distributed and come up with a plan together to even out the workload - they assumed that you were happy doing them as you hadn’t mentioned it previously.
You may find that there are dictation and transcription tools that will build into your practice management software.
It could be as simple asking for a visible clock in consult room 2.
You may need to enlist further resources, support or ideas. You are worth giving the time to reflect on these things. When you’ve made changes, reflect back in a kind way. Things might not work, that’s ok, it’s more information. There might be more changes to make - this isn’t about making you more valuable, this is empowering you because you are valuable. It’s ok not to be sure what to do next, there are people to help. If you’re noticing constant anxiety, overwhelm, or a negative impact on your mental health, professional support can be really helpful. Remember, Vetlife is available 24/7 as a listening service with a variety of resources - 0303 040 2551.
4. You are unique and valuable, beyond your job title.
There are so many societal shoulds and pressures around time and task management. In the world there are far too many square pegs judging and measuring themselves trying to fit into round holes. What works for you might not always work for someone else, and vice versa. You are allowed to get curious about what helps you, whilst noticing the short and long term effects of changes. Some workplaces or types of work may not suit you at different stages in life, even if they once did. You do not have to do this alone though. For those with physical and mental health conditions, neurodivergence and disabilities, it’s also worth remembering that excellent organisations such as British Veterinary Chronic Illness Supporting have been opening more conversations around reasonable adjustments at work. You are allowed to ask for changes. This is not a blog on this topic, but further information can be found here about understanding what you may be able to ask for, and in what circumstances, if this is affecting your work:
The UK Government: https://www.gov.uk/reasonable-adjustments-for-disabled-workers
This could be a whole series of blogs. There are plenty of tools out there, but at Vet Empowered we’d really encourage you to lead with kindness and curiosity, and allow yourself to notice what helps you.
Change is always possible.