Physicians, Fill Your Bucket List With Ordinary Joys

Jennifer Frank, MD


July 11, 2022

My daughter is training to be a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). One of the tasks she was assigned during her time at a local long-term care facility was painting the residents' nails. She was getting one resident ready for her manicure when the woman gently asked her if she could get her toenails painted too. My daughter happily agreed, and the resident could not have been more thrilled. "I've waited 97 years for a pedicure," the woman told her.

I thought about waiting 97 years for something many of us get routinely. Then I thought about what I've been putting off or waiting to do — not for 97 years, but for enough years. And then I considered the real question — why? Why do I delay or postpone or procrastinate about the many things on my own bucket list, especially small things that would bring me great pleasure?

I'm sure my reasons are similar to your reasons or even the reasons of this charming nursing home resident. It could be money (pedicures are not cheap), or time, or opportunity, or confidence, or comfort. Those are all fair excuses for those big-ticket items on my list, like snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef or riding in a hot-air balloon; however, those excuses are completely insubstantial for the little, easy things. Items like reading a book on a warm, spring day under the apple blossoms in my backyard. In addition to my bucket list items, there are many simple pleasures I deny myself in favor of the easy distraction of my phone or a TV show I've already watched three times.

We are all aware that life is fleeting, maybe even more so in medicine, where we deliver life-changing diagnoses fairly regularly. Yet, we are just as guilty as everyone else in not living our lives with full intentionality and allowing minutes, hours, days, weeks, and sometimes even years to pass by without being purposeful in our activities and how we spend our time. I believe part of work-life balance is being intentional about leaving work in order to enjoy the other parts of your life, but too often, we step away from professional tasks to embrace somewhat meaningless and purposeless pursuits (eg, social media, online shopping, binge-watching Netflix).

This is probably my last summer with all of my children at home, as I anticipate my college-aged kids will find jobs and apartments in the summers to come. This has made me cognizant of the limited time I have for those ordinary moments that become extraordinary in retrospect. It takes energy to grab everyone for a board game or to sit around a fire instead of allowing the normal forces to pull everyone to opposite parts of the house to engage with a screen, especially after spending a full day seeing patients and wrestling with my in-basket. However, these become the memories that I enjoy over and over again, grateful that I chose the important over the easy.

Medicine is a challenging profession that can become all-consuming if we are not attentive. I bet there are things on your list that you've been putting off, whether that's taking a walk with your spouse, playing catch in the backyard with your daughter, going out for ice cream, or hitting the beach. Don't wait 97 years or even 97 seconds to be purposeful about how to spend your time away from work in pursuit of what is most meaningful to you.

How do you make time and space in your life for the most important, ordinary things?

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About Dr Jennifer Frank
Jennifer Frank has the unbelievable privilege of being a family physician, physician leader, wife, and mother in Northeast Wisconsin. When it comes to balancing work and life, she is her own worst enemy because she loves to be busy and enjoys many different things. In her spare time (ha!), she enjoys reading suspense and murder mysteries as well as books on leadership and self-improvement. She also writes her own murder mysteries and loves being outdoors.
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