Time management tips for doctors

By Samar Mahmoud, MS
Published February 28, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Physician time is limited, but with better time management, it doesn’t have to be. 

  • A key time management strategy is to prioritize the top three critical tasks of the day and to focus on only those tasks

  • Prioritizing self-care and learning to say no are integral to avoiding burnout. 

Long hours are practically synonymous with the medical career. According to a 2018 survey, physicians average 51.4 hours a week. An exhausted subset of 23.5% of physicians log 61-80 hours a week. Does it have to be like this?

While some physicians may have surrendered to the myth that work-life balance isn’t in a doctor’s job description, the reality is different. With the right tools, physicians can better manage their time at work and at home. Actionable advice from physician coaches and research bear this out.

Limit daily priorities to a maximum of three critical tasks 

Laura Berenstain, a cardiac anesthesiologist and a physician coach, highlighted the importance of limiting daily priorities to three in a recent KevinMD post

When a to-do list seems endless, the temptation arises to simply crumple it up. Berenstain emphasized that once the top three priorities of the day are completed, anything beyond those tasks is simply a bonus achievement. 

“Seeing the important items ticked off my list by the end of the day and the week gives me immense satisfaction,” Berenstain wrote. “I know I’ve made forward progress on the things that mattered most to me.”

Prioritize self-care 

Self-care likely does not make the cut of top priorities for most physicians who are struggling to balance caring for their patients, families, community obligations, and more. Susan R. Johnson, MD, MS, is a time-management expert. She suggests that self-care should be a priority.

"While this is heresy to those of us trained to be selfless and put our patients first, the truth is we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves."

Susan R. Johnson, MD, MS

“While this is heresy to those of us trained to be selfless and put our patients first, the truth is we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves,” Johnson wrote in a recent Healio post.

Johnson emphasized taking breaks during the day to detach, decompress, and return to work refreshed. She also highlighted the importance of weekends off, at least on work-free weeknight, and taking vacations.

Self-care might include exercising, walking, eating healthy, or reading—basically, the things you advise your patients to do. 

Limit distractions

A 2021 Cureus study examining physician usage of social media platforms found that of 158 participants, 26.6% of healthcare providers spent less than an hour on social media, 31% spent one to 2 hours, 28.5% said 2 to 3 hours, and 13.9% said they spent more than 4 hours throughout the day. 

For physicians who use social media professionally, this may make sense, but mindlessly scrolling on social media for hours can drain your energy, clutter your brain, and distract from your goals. Set boundaries with social media and reclaim your time. 

Apps  such as Daywise or Forest can set time limits for social media apps. Iphones also offer a Do Not Disturb setting and trackers to quantify time spent on social media apps. Dedicating one hour daily as screen-free time may also reduce time spent on social media.

Take advantage of technology

A 2016 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicated that only 27% of physician’s time is spent face-to-face with patients while the remaining 49% is spent on EHRs and administrative tasks. This translates to almost 2 hours on administrative tasks for every hour spent with a patient. Some may say this is not what physicians signed up for when they chose medicine. 

However, physicians can get back some of their lost time if they use the right technology, according to a Physician Leadership article

The current app market is thriving, with more than 2.2 million apps of which about 2% are medical apps. 

Take advantage of technology by adopting the following tips: 

  • Use apps that enable dictation of patient notes through convenient phone technology.

  • Using apps that automate patient scheduling and send appointment reminders. 

  • Eliminate the dreaded fax machine and transition to efax capability. 

Learn to say no

Be realistic about your time and workload and only take on activities that fit not just your workload but your mission and vision. 

Berenstain advised physicians to reflect on their values in an effort to identify the tasks that hold the most meaning. For all other asks, she added, “Be courageous-gracefully say ‘no’ to something! I promise it won’t be the end of your career, and you’re going to feel deeply satisfied with not adding something else to your list of duties. Maybe your ‘no’ will create an opportunity for a colleague.”

Feeling engaged and committed to a project is better than participating simply out of obligation. This is especially true if participating leads to feelings of stress and burnout. 

What this means for you

Work-life balance is attainable for physicians. It requires making a commitment to time management. By limiting daily to-do lists to three critical tasks, prioritizing breaks and self-care, learning to say no, minimizing distractions, and building efficiencies in your work and home life, better work-life balance is achievable.


  1. A conversation about time management with Susan R. Johnson, MD, MS. Healio. 2017. 

  2. Alperin P. Technology to boost productivity in your practice. 2020. 

  3. Aymes S. Work-life balance for physicians: The what, the why, and the how. 2020. 

  4. Berenstain L. The new rules of time management. KevinMD.com. 2022

  5. Khan MN, Faraz A, Jamal AB, et al. A study to see the effect of social media usage among healthcare providers. Cureus. 2021;13(7).

  6. Sinsky C, Colligan L, Li L, et al. Allocation of physician time in ambulatory practice: a time and motion study in 4 specialties. Ann Intern Med. 2016;165(11):753.

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