Physician, Heal Thyself

Physician, Heal Thyself

When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.
– Benjamin Franklin

I remember the day I realized I had a problem.

I was a 20-something software engineer working on a project that was important and highly visible, but I was in no way up against a deadline. On this particular day, I was in a zone hammering out code. Creativity was flowing and things were clicking. It was intoxicating.

Around 6pm, I called my wife to say I wouldn’t make it home in time for dinner. Several hours later, I called again to tell her she shouldn’t wait up for me before going to bed. Soon enough, in what seemed like a microsecond, the pink tones of a sunrise peeked through the office window, startling me back to reality. The rush of accomplishment dissipated, revealing hunger and exhaustion, all wrapped in a thick layer of guilt. My heart sank.

“Hello, my name is Dennis, and I’m a workaholic.”

Our careers are a continuous search for work that feeds us—work that enables us to have autonomy, mastery, and purpose. But, when we find it, we too often allow it to consume us at the expense of our own well-being. That, in turn, makes us less effective at the work about which we are so passionate, while leaving less of ourselves to give to the people we love.

We are living a paradox: The very thing that fills us up also empties us out.

In the movie, The Fundamentals of Caring (Netflix Original), Paul Rudd plays a man who has suffered great personal loss and decides to heal by becoming a caregiver to a challenging youth with disabilities. In the class he takes to prepare for this new role, the instructor lays out the “Caregiver Commandments,” one of which is this:

“I cannot take care of another unless I first take care of myself.”


So, where do we start?

Maybe we should begin with where NOT to start. I’m all for enjoying a guilty pleasure—a binge-watch, “retail therapy,” or a spa day as a way to recharge. But, frankly, these activities are miles away from the locus of the problem. They are like fighting a fire with a squirt gun. What we need to do FIRST is aggressively attack the basic imbalance between the supply and demand of our physical energy.

I’ve already written about the demand side—paring back the priorities vying for your time and energy to the vital few to create space for the new to breathe. So, now, let’s talk about increasing supply. Are there ways to defy the laws of physics and actually CREATE energy?

Tom Rath’s book Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changespretty much changed—or rather SAVED—my life. Backed up by study after study, Rath builds an ironclad case that we all need to pay much more attention to the basics of well-being. I put this small book down, having committed to over 25 specific habits that have made an enormous difference for me in terms of the energy I bring to work and to life. Here are the Top 10 that are working for me:

  1. Before choosing what to eat, ask yourself, “Will each bite of this be a net gain or a net loss to my well-being?” This simple mindset shift has been transformational for me.
  2. Have bags of almonds with you at all times and eat those instead of the afternoon cookies that just arrived at your offsite meeting.
  3. When traveling, pack a portable workout you can do in your hotel room (I use this one).
  4. Get a sit-stand desk (I use this one—it goes on top of an existing desk). Set a reminder to stand every 20 minutes and another to walk away from your desk every 90 minutes for a quick break.
  5. Get a fitness tracker app and a competitive but encouraging partner. Then set a goal for 10k steps a day. Short walks in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening will get you there.
  6. Minimize artificial light and computer screens one hour before bedtime.
  7. Keep your room 2 to 4 degrees cooler than normal for sleeping.
  8. Replace an hour of evening TV watching with a walk and an earlier bedtime.
  9. If you must do after-hours work, get up early the next day to do it instead of staying up late. Your rested morning brain works better and you’ll be more productive.
  10. Have a morning ritual—it can be as short as 5 minutes—that includes quiet, deep breathing and meditation on what you’re grateful for.

Of course, the habits that work for you may be different than the habits that work for me, but there are simple things you can do that will go miles toward enhancing your overall well-being and adding energy and productivity to your day.

You have chosen rewarding but exhausting work. You generously pour out your energy for others. You continually deal with conflict and dysfunction. You push your ideas uphill against a tide of resistance. You are often the first to arrive and the last to leave. You protect your people from the “stuff” that rolls downhill. You sacrificially hold those you serve in the palm of your hand.

It is hard and it is emptying.

“Put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.” We hear this every time we fly, and yet we lose sight of how important this actually is.

May you recommit to others by recommitting to your own well-being. May you eat, move, and sleep in ways that enable you to show up as the best version of yourself. Self-care isn’t a “spare-time, if-I-get-to-it” activity. It must be our first priority if we are to do the work that fills us up while pouring ourselves out for the people who matter most to us.