When your 'emergency' isn't


As veterinarians we're wired for crisis, which can derail our personal goals is we're not careful.

Getty ImagesStriking the right life balance in veterinary medicine requires recognizing why all “emergencies” aren't important.

In veterinary medicine, emergencies take priority. If we don't deal with the most urgent situations right away, pets can suffer, permanent damage may be done and lives can be lost. When emergencies come in the door, we drop what we're doing, hang up the phone and abandon whatever else we were working on.

While that's a great strategy for keeping pets alive, the problem comes when those of us in the veterinary field take that approach outside of work. We've been trained to react to everything that comes up-to jerk our attention away from what we're doing, focus on the immediate problem as soon as it arises, and fix it before going back to our lives. But as it turns out, this isn't a rewarding way to go through our time here on earth.

Recently, while I was cleaning up dinner and talking with my 7- and 3-year-old daughters, I made the mistake of glancing at my phone when the screen lit up. I saw multiple emails from people awaiting my response, messages from a Facebook group that was including me in their heated debate and calendar alerts about meetings for the next morning that I had not prepared for.

“Emergency! Emergency!” my mind screamed. I felt myself going into veterinary crisis mode: I needed my laptop! I needed to fix these problems before I could go on with what I was doing! As I strode toward my computer, my younger daughter said, “Daddy, where are you going?” Her older sister replied, in her best consoling voice, “He needs to work.”

Her words stopped me in my tracks.

What was I doing? Why did these digital voices, these tiny pings from my phone, have the power to pull me away from my children? And what gave them this power over me? The voices came from people I hardly knew, and I gave them that power.

When we're in the practice of handling emergencies regularly, we start to look for them everywhere. And you know what they say about that: If you look for something hard enough, you'll find it. Before long, we even find ourselves creating “emergencies.” The result is that we spend our lives reacting and responding to those situations instead of dwelling thoughtfully in the areas of our lives that truly matter.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the author, Stephen R. Covey, talks about setting priorities by asking these two questions:

> Is this task urgent?

> Is this task important?

Urgency and importance aren't the same thing, but most of us use the terms interchangeably. Important tasks are those that bring us closer to achieving our goals. Urgent tasks are those that demand instant attention and are usually given to us by other people (who want to achieve their own goals). We give them priority because they carry stated or implied deadlines. Covey believes every situation can be classified in one of four ways:

> Urgent and important

> Urgent but not important

> Not urgent but important

> Not urgent and not important.

I love this way of thinking because it addresses a trap that I and many other “emergency people” fall into. We consider all tasks that are urgent to be emergencies and tackle them instinctively before taking a moment to prioritize. The truth is that many things in our lives are “urgent” but are unimportant to our health, happiness or success. (I expect 90 percent of your emails fall into this category. Mine certainly do.) The things that actually are important get neglected because they don't show up in our inboxes or have a flashing notification.

For me, the most important priorities are having a great relationship with my kids and being a good husband. But there's no urgency there. There's no deadline to force action, so putting off family time to call one more person back, see one more appointment or hammer out one more email can feel like a sensible move in the moment. It satisfies my urge to “just get this done.”

Meanwhile, my kids are getting older and I won't get to scoop them up in my arms much longer. My wife deserves to have a great partner now, not at some point in the future when I “get done with work.” The big, meaningful, life-defining things I want to do someday are in danger of remaining elusively off in the future if I spend all my time on things that are urgent. This is how people end up on their deathbeds asking, “What did I do with my life?”

So, as people who fix emergencies for a living, let's take a moment to remind ourselves of three things when it comes to our lives outside of work:

> True emergencies are both urgent and important.

> The most meaningful things in our lives may not be urgent, but they should still be prioritized first because they are important.

> We should all do fewer things that aren't important to us, whether they are urgent or not.

Having meaningful conversations with people you really like, going on a special vacation or spending time on a hobby that energizes or relaxes you-these aren't activities that show up on your calendar. They won't send an alert on your phone. Neither will being a good friend, parent, spouse or family member-but what could possibly be more important than being a decent human being? So let's try to turn off that emergency response instinct when it comes to our personal lives. We'll get so much more out of life if we do. 

Dr. Andy Roark practices in Greenville, S.C. He is the founder and managing director of veterinary consulting firm Tall Oaks Enterprises. Follow him on Facebook or @DrAndyRoark on Twitter.

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