Setting Limits or Limiting Potential?

Setting Limits or Limiting Potential?

As physicians in post-graduate training programs decide to limit their working hours they are putting a cap on how much they will learn. Residency is an essential time to learn about your craft and yourself. By creating a quota of time to spend, new physicians aren’t absorbing all the knowledge to meet the demands of a medical practice. There is growing concern that new physicians are trying to create a work/life balance that is unrealistic during a time when learning is most important. Based on his experience, Dr. Bell shares his thoughts on this issue below.


I was recently involved in a conversation where the topic of limiting work hours was raised.  More specifically, the perception that many Physicians entering their post-graduate training programs seek to limit the number of hours they may work each day.

The days of Residency training where sleep deprivation was expected eventually was recognized as potentially dangerous to physician and patient alike and changes to address safety were implemented.  Despite the grueling work schedule, Residency has always been a time where Physicians not only began to learn their craft, but also learned much about themselves.   After completing a Residency program, the years ahead would seem less demanding in comparison, while learning how to balance a professional with a personal life, a relatively simple task (at least in theory).

Over the past few years, I have noted increasing chatter among colleagues regarding new Residents and the expectations they bring with them to a training program or even when joining an established practice.   A common concern among the established Physicians is that the newer ones set limits on their work hours that do not reflect the needs or demands of a medical practice.  The new Physicians expect to work hours that have specific start/stop times that enable them to balance a personal life outside of their career.   

This is considered by many established Physicians as an unrealistic expectation as well as one that limits the potential of a new Physician, especially during a time when learning is more essential than ever.  

A few personal points to add here.  

I loved being a Physician as much on day one of Residency as I did when I retired from clinical practice.  I never felt I was going to a job and relished the trust of my patients and the responsibility I felt towards them, as well as the intellectual challenges, use of critical thinking and problem solving.  

I realized soon into my first year of training that despite what I had learned in school, that was just a starting point.  The time for real world application of knowledge was now, and I knew enough to be dangerous.  It was up to me to immerse myself in my specialty and to extract as much as I possibly could from the experiences of each day.   

Bottom line, I never worried too much about the clock or the calendar as I believed that a career in medicine to be representative of a higher calling and the greatest service one can provide towards their fellow man.  Why set limits on any aspect of this?  Artists, musicians, athletes, or anyone who accomplished a level of expertise has worked countless hours.  Malcolm Gladwell observed the “10,000 Hour Rule” in his book Outliers. In other words, anyone can become an expert in their field by devoting at least 10,000 hours to become successful in it. 

While I fully realize the importance of balance in life, I have come to believe that setting limits can lead to unfulfillment and untapped potential.  Personally, I see setting limits based on time or some other self-imposed reason as analogous to saying, “I can’t”.  It leads to the stifling of creativity, frustration, excuse making and never knowing how good or even great you might have been.   


To read more of Dr. Desmond Bell's blog "The Script Pad" go to


MD Coaches, LLC is a company dedicated to developing and empowering physicians to realize a greater satisfaction in their roles. Understanding the challenges and operational concerns for both physicians and hospital administrators. MD Coaches utilizes experience and coaching skills to support their physician clients in establishing strategies for positive career progression.


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