A Mindset Hack for Frustrated, Burned Out Physicians

Aug 4, 2022 | Burnout

Haiku #1

“I can’t.” Power words.

And very, very prophetic.

Are they always true?

When we meet, most of the physicians I work with are experiencing some level of feeling stuck. So often today, physicians are at the whim of others’ choices—patients, payers, administrative leaders— and it’s easy to slip into feeling powerless.

They’re exhausted, burned out, struggling to keep up, and feeling guilty about all they “should” be doing at home and at work.

They’re working nights and weekends on documentation and other admin tasks, arriving at work early to “pre-chart,” and feeling hopeless and frustrated about the impact on their personal life.

They feel trapped in their current situation and don’t see any viable alternatives.

I’ve learned to keep an ear out for those power words, “I can’t,” when physicians are describing the biggest challenges and pain points they face.

“I can’t say no because [my colleagues will be overwhelmed/my department chair will be displeased/my income will decrease/no one else can do it/I won’t make my bonus].”

You get the picture.

As we continue working together, I gently push back. I ask that they consider a language swap-out. Instead of “I can’t,” trying, “I am choosing not to.”

Then I ask that they brainstorm all possible options, with the understanding that every single one will come with consequences. After putting all the options on the table, they can make a more informed, intentional choice—one that clearly includes the consequences associated with each.

For example, a physician might say, “I can’t complete my notes before seeing the next patient because [patients will get angry at the delay/I’ll feel too guilty/I don’t want to take the time then].”

Switching to “I am choosing to not complete my notes before seeing the next patient,” opens up possibilities.

She can continue as she has and end the day with hours of documentation left to finish, causing negative downstream effects on her family life and ability to recharge.

Or she can begin to weigh the drawbacks of her current choice and explore others. 

The alternatives often involve some discomfort at first—loosening up on hyper-perfectionism with notes, for example. That discomfort is usually the obstacle that prevented her from choosing that alternative in the first place. But with awareness and practice, the discomfort can be overcome.

Switching the language enables her to see the power she does have.

Of course, “I can’t” is actually true in some circumstances. I’m not, in my late 50s, going to become an Olympic-level downhill skier. That ship has sailed. But very often, we think we can’t when a bit of exploration flings open doors we didn’t notice before. Therein lies freedom.

If you’d like some guidance to see all your options, feel free to message me. It would be a privilege to help you find and open those doors.

Haiku #2

“I’m choosing.” Power words.

And very, very prophetic.

Seeing all options.


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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