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The Productivity Problem: Five Ways to Find Peace & Measure Success Without Checkboxes

If you know me at all, you know I find a lot of pride in getting stuff done. In fact, I’m typing this post out on my phone as I lie on the beach with a husband who reminds me that vacations are supposed to be for relaxing!

There’s no feeling like getting to the end of the day and ticking off my checkboxes, one by one — proof that I have accomplished what I had set out to do. At home: laundry’s done, meals are prepped, bills are paid, house is cleaned. These are neat checkboxes with a clear ending point — the laundry is either done or not done.

The problem I have always come across is completing checkboxes as a pediatric music therapist. Sure, there are some checkboxes that are neat and simple: Have I replied to that email? Have I cleaned my instruments? Have I finished attesting my intern’s notes? Check, check, check. However, there are some tasks that elude my perfect square checkboxes. Unfortunately patient care — working with people in all their complexities — doesn’t fit into these perfectly drawn squares.

This problem is two-fold. First, there are the difficulties that accompany FINDING and actually physically seeing the patient. There are many days where my top priority patients are asleep… then involved with another provider… then sedated for a scan... then inevitably sleeping again, thus completing the maddening circle. I find this incredibly frustrating as I trudge up the stairs again, thinking to myself, why can’t I just check this box? I feel lost in the sea of other healthcare providers as the box mocks me on my clipboard.

The second problem I have found is one checkbox may lead to multiplied checkboxes. I like to picture this like the Hydra from Hercules. When I finally see the patient, new information comes to light, the goals change, there’s a need for new planning, new meetings with other providers… MORE CHECKBOXES.

This problem was intensified when I was a young music therapist, just starting out that the hospital. I was, as “Hamilton” sang, young, scrappy and hungry, and I was not throwing away my shot! As a result, I felt it was appropriate to prioritize seeing twice the amount of patients I could actually get to in a day, and then kill myself trying to get that amount of work done. Everyday, I left the hospital feeling defeated and frustrated. I pictured the checkboxes in my mind as I drove home and felt a pang of guilt for all that I was unable to get to. Those damn checkboxes.

I’ve gotten a bit older (yet still scrappy and hungry) and have learned to strike a balance. Here are few things that have helped me along the way.

1: Focus on Quality over Quantity

Good interactions often take time. Individualized interventions take foresight and pre-planning. However, this planning can cut into the time we have in a day for other patient interactions. It’s important to remember that often one well-planned, effective session may have a longer lasting impact than multiple lesser-quality check-ins. Those good quality sessions can also lead to recognition by the medical staff and ultimately more music therapy referrals!

2: Celebrate Small Victories

Focus on how those well-planned interventions feel. We all know when a music therapy session is going well, but really celebrate that! Write it down or send yourself an email about the experience to yourself and keep it in a folder. Revisit these when you’re feeling less than productive — look back at all the good you’ve been able to accomplish.

3: Set Realistic Expectations

Since I was an intern, this is what I have struggled with the most. The problem is, it’s not realistic to see 8-10 patients during a given work day. It’s just not! In the morning, over coffee (obviously) I consider what my day will look like. Do I have meetings? Do I have paperwork due? I factor this into my day as I consider a realistic caseload. Sometimes that is six and sometimes that is one. Anything else I get done is just icing on top.

4: Develop Rituals to Let Go

There are days that focusing on my successes/victories or setting what seemed like a realistic caseload don’t pan out. I’m left feeling frustrated and incompetent. I imagine another nameless, faceless music therapist who would have been able to do more and just BE more — for their patients, their coworkers and their students. As I walk through the last door of the hospital, I imagine unpacking that burden and leaving it at the door. There will be new days to check more boxes, to move quicker, and to continue making a difference as a music therapist. Perhaps that door visualization isn’t for you.

What ritual could you develop to help you let go?

5: Identify Attributes That Make YOU a Success

We all have days where we may feel incompetent or unproductive. However, I promise you, there is a reason you are where you are. You didn't get here by chance. You possess a unique skill set that allows you to be an amazing music therapist — the right one for this job.

Do yourself a favor and write down three qualities or traits that make you amazing at your work.

And remember — your value is not determined by how many checkboxes you’ve checked. Recognizing your worth? Now, that's a checkbox we can get behind!

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