Robert T. Hasty, DO, FACOI, FACP

Productivity Hacks for the Physician

by Robert T. Hasty, DO, FACOI, FACP
ACOI President

May 31, 2024

One important topic that I was never formally taught in medical school (nor were any of the physician colleagues that I have spoken with about the subject) was productivity. Interestingly, productivity is an important topic to physician employers. Physicians are also some of the busiest professions in America with most working over 50 hours per week. Nearly half have at least one symptom of burnout and the rate of burnout is increasing among physicians. Focusing on improving productivity could be one way that physicians could help decrease the number of hours they work, improve the quality of their work and their lives.

As a busy academic physician and Dean and Chief Academic Officer of the nation’s newest medical school, I have been a student of methods to improve productivity over the years in order to help accomplish all that I need to do and to improve the quality of my own life. I have read several books over the years (such as the 4-Hour Work Week, Getting Things Done, etc.) as well as talked with many physicians who are highly productive (including an ACOI member who is a cardiologist who stopped adding cream and sugar to his coffee to cut down on the time it took). I don’t profess to be an expert on this topic, but over the years I have developed several productivity hacks that have worked for me. I share them here in case they are helpful to anyone else. I do combine work habits and personal life habits as they are so intertwined; I think you must concentrate on both to make it all work.

Automate Everything

One of the most powerful things that one can do to improve productivity is to automate as many mundane or redundant tasks as possible to free your time and your mind to focus on things that require more cognition or energy. The list of things that you can automate is nearly endless. I have automated all of the following: payment of all bills, medication refills (Amazon online pharmacy with 90-day refills), automatic delivery of toiletries and other consumables, birthday/holiday gifts (same gifts each year for loved ones such as a Netflix subscription renewal for my mother on her birthday), vacuuming my garage each night with a robotic vacuum cleaner that is on a timer, dry cleaning pickup, deposit into my retirement account, birthday cards to our clinical faculty, etc.

Efficiency of Tasks

There are a number of tasks that can be made more efficient. I have focused on trying to improve efficiency in nearly every detail in my life. About 20 years ago, I heard about the efficiency of using Apple Macs to improve productivity and I have found it to be one of my most efficient behaviors. Likewise, I exclusively use Google Workspace (over Microsoft Office 365) and it is much more efficient (and secure). I have also done little things such as combining my showering and shaving as well as brushing my teeth in the morning (while the shower is warming up) and I have calculated about three minutes of time saving each day. I have also found that spending time up front with electronic medical records saving and organizing templates and .dot phrases can save a significant amount of time each day. I also save commonly used email responses that I tend to need quite a bit. I live my life in a paperless fashion and try to never touch a piece of paper twice. I focus on digitizing any paper that I run across.

To-Do List

My number one most important productivity tool that I can’t live without is my to-do list. I would consider it by far my most valuable tool in my work life. It also gives me a small endorphin rush every time I can remove a completed item. I use the Reminders app on my phone as it is always available on any of the devices that I may be around (iPhone, Mac, iPad, etc.). As a student of Sir William Osler, I try to live each day in “day-tight compartments.” To do this, I focus on trying to finish my to-do list each day. There are some tasks that will remain on my to-do list for several days (or even weeks, like I have one pesky item that I have on there now that will take hours to complete). Some folks talk about the two-minute rule, where items that you can accomplish in two minutes should be done immediately and not placed on a to-do list. For me, I put almost everything on it, and I am very happy to delete it when I finish it. My biggest challenge is when I forget to put it on my to-do list. If I don’t put it on my to-do list, I most often forget to do it. Occasionally, there are items that I can’t accomplish immediately (e.g., waiting for something from someone else before I can do what I need to do). For those items, I put them on as a scheduled calendar event. However, I do caution people against routinely putting to-do items as calendar events as it can hurt your productivity and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be in “the zone” to do those tasks when it is that time. I have also found that scheduled emails to others can be quite productive in terms of emailing folks at the right time and it is also respectful to others by not invading their time on the weekends or nights.

Learn to Say “No”

One of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn in my career is to be able to say no. I have been fortunate over the years to be given several opportunities. The challenge is that I have had too many opportunities present themselves, and a few years ago I realized I needed to decline some of them. The challenge is trying to determine which things to say no to (or which to delegate). I love to do so many things and the struggle is real, but by learning to say no, I have been able to prioritize those things that are the most important to my job and to my personal life and I have been living my most productive and comfortable life since. I also feel that I am doing the highest quality work that I ever have in my life.  

Stay True to Why You Pursued Medicine.