The Optimized Doctor

Slowing down


This past Labor Day weekend, I did something radical. I slowed down. Way down. My wife slowed down with me, which helped. We spent the weekend close to home walking, talking, reading, contemplating, planning, assessing, doing puzzles and crosswords, and imbibing a craft beer or two, slowly, of course. Why? Because of Adam Grant, PhD, the organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Philadelphia. I had recently reread his 2016 book “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), which argues that procrastination can lead to more creative thinking. I’m a big fan; he’s one of those professors who makes you fervently wish you were a student again, someone who will provoke you and challenge your way of thinking.

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Dr. Grant’s basic premise, which he has proved through research, is that procrastination boosts productivity. Here’s how: Let’s say you’re facing a challenge or difficult task. He says to start working on it immediately, then take some time away for reflection. This “quick to start and slow to finish” method allows your brain to continually percolate on the problem. An incomplete task stays partially active in your brain. When you come back to it you often see it with fresh eyes. You will experience your highest productivity when you are toggling between these two modes.

This makes sense, and Dr. Grant cites numerous examples from Leonardo da Vinci to the founders of Warby-Parker, as examples of success. But how can it benefit physicians? Many of us are “precrastinators,” people who tend to complete or at least begin tasks as soon as possible, even when it’s unnecessary or not urgent. Unlike some jobs in which it’s easier to take a break from a project and return to it with more creative solutions, we often are racing against a clock to see more patients, read more slides, answer more emails, and make more phone calls. We are perpetually frenetic, which is not conducive to original thinking.

If this sounds like you, then you are likely to benefit from deliberate procrastination. Here are a few ways to slow down:

  • Put it on your calendar. Yes, I see the irony, but it works. Start by scheduling one hour a week where you are to accomplish nothing. You can fill this time with whatever your mind wants to do at that moment.
  • When faced with a diagnostic dilemma or treatment failure, resist the urge to solve that problem in that moment. Save that note for later, tell the patient you will call him back or bring him back for a visit later. Even if you’re not actively working on it, it will incubate somewhere in your brain, allowing more divergent thought processes to take over. It’s a little like trying to solve a crossword that seems impossible in the moment and then answers suddenly appear without effort.
  • Take up a hobby: Play the guitar, learn to make pasta, climb a big rock. When you are fully engaged in such pursuits it requires complete mental focus. When you revisit the difficult problem you’re working on, you will likely see it from different perspectives.
  • Meditate: Meditation requires our brains and bodies to slow down. It can help reduce self-doubt and criticism which stifle problem solving.
  • Watch Slow TV. Slow TV is a Scandinavian phenomenon where you sit and watch meditative video such as a 7-hour train cam from Bergen, Norway, to Oslo. There’s no dialogue, no plot, no commercials. It’s just 7 hours of track and train and is weirdly comforting.
Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

If you want to learn more, then when you get a chance, Google “slow living” and explore. Of course, some of you precrastinators probably have already started before finishing this column.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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