Time to Think

By Roxanne Hawn

Sorting lessons from the pandemic and making decisions going forward.
Doctor resting against window in contemplation

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic sent many veterinary practices scrambling to adapt. Frustration and confusion reigned with public health orders, mandates from local and state authorities (sometimes differing), and rules from veterinary state boards on whether telehealth services can be offered and in what circumstances based on how different veterinary-client-patient relationship regulations read.

While others in different professions worked from home or faced layoffs, involuntary furloughs, and job loss, the veterinary profession continued providing essential services to pets in their communities often under challenging conditions, including:

  • PPE shortages
  • Limits on services allowed by pandemic-related restrictions
  • Smaller cohort-based teams
  • Curbside patient drop-offs with clients waiting in the parking lot
  • Adjustments to euthanasia protocols, if clients weren’t allowed inside the facility
  • Greater use of various technologies and tools for client communication

Adapting on the fly with grace and flexibility has always been a strength in the profession. Veterinary teams pulled off exceptional work amid the uncertainty and non-stop changes.

Perhaps your team tried things that worked well and other things that didn’t. By focusing on the immediate need and situation, you likely learned some incredible lessons—even if you haven’t had the time or energy to recognize it yet.

Deep thinking

In 2016, Cal Newport, PhD, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, wrote Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. His thesis is essentially anyone making a living using their brain really needs to schedule uninterrupted time regularly to think deeply about their work, including creativity and problem-solving.

It isn’t simply about making the time to think. It’s also about teaching our brains to concentrate, when it feels like everything else in the world conspires against maintaining focus.

During a You 2.0 podcast interview with Shankar Vedantam from NPR, Newport argues that there’s an imperceptible, but big, price paid each time we allow distraction, including from noise, other people, and technology. Pointing to “attention residue” research by Sophie Leroy, PhD, from the University of Washington, Newport says even being aware of waiting emails, phone calls, or text messages or glancing at a mobile device every few minutes erodes focus and concentration skills and requires our brains to reorient again and again to the actual task at hand. Each distraction eats up time and quietly trains our brains away from optimal function.

Newport himself sticks to a strict schedule and goes through a shutdown ritual at the end of the day, like turning off the human computer in his head. He talks about how our always-on, always-accessible use of technology puts too much emphasis on convenience rather than effectiveness.

Growing for what’s next

The interesting thing about the demands the COVID-19 pandemic put on veterinary teams is that often there can be a certain genius in making it up as you go along. As much as people talk about getting back to normal, what if at least some of the adaptations made your work better than the way things have always been done?

Rather than return to everything as it was, consider finding some uninterrupted time to evaluate lessons learned and what you might keep doing or other ways you want to adjust how you work moving forward.

“What we knew as ‘normal’ has gone,” says Kathrine McAleese, PhD, a sociologist and psychotherapist based in Northern Ireland, DrKathrine.com, “and in its place is an opportunity to do things differently, to design workplaces and work-flows that are in alignment with higher values and that bring something richer and healthier out of this time … As tempting as it is to just fall back into an old familiar routine, I encourage you to look fresh at the business, every facet of it, and dare to dream of doing things differently. Dream, imagine the possibilities and take every good thing you can forward.”

Graphic: What do we need to do to recover and grow from the pandemic forward?

McAleese specializes in online coaching and mentoring for female entrepreneurs around the world, including many in animal-related professions. She describes her work as taking people “from frustrated and burnt out to feeling refreshed and happy, including helping them find ways to live their God-given purpose at a hustle-free pace.” She has been busy during the pandemic, helping clients adapt and re-evaluate themselves and their businesses.

McAleese explains that when setting goals or looking to change and grow, people often focus on what they want to have. Instead, she stresses the importance of thinking about who you need to be to have what you want. That sense of being flows from who we believe we are and believe we are not.

She says, “Who you believe you are will influence the opportunities you see as open to you, it will impact the commitment you make to bigger or long-term decisions, and it will alter how you deal with setbacks, which are an unavoidable part of being in business.”

The challenge, then, is not only to pursue professional development such as gaining new skills or doing more continuing education but also to work on personal development as a cornerstone for making inspired changes, coming out of lessons from the pandemic.

McAleese says, “When you are being who you need to be for your new level of growth, you will do what needs done to reach that goal, and this combination puts you in a position to have what it is you want. Conversely, if you dream of what you want to have without addressing who you need to be, you will not see yourself as someone who can or should do what would be necessary to actually have what it is you say you want.”

This be-do-have mindset focus works for any goals, including:

  • Gaining more clients
  • Maximizing service to the clients you already have
  • Growing and improving your veterinary practice
  • Revamping how your team works
  • Setting better boundaries at work, at home, in recreational activities, or in volunteer work
  • Having more free time

So as you assess what you’ve learned during the pandemic and what adaptations you’d like to keep or additional changes you’d like to make, focus on being the type of person who does the essential work that ensures everyone from the practice team to clients and especially to patients has the experiences that matter most.

Questions to Ask and Decisions to Make: A Matrix

It’s easy to get stuck thinking in binary terms, before and after the pandemic. Rather than potentially idealizing the before time and rushing back to it, think about what you’ve learned, what adaptations worked (or not), and how you might move forward—better, stronger and happier.

As you consider what comes next, with at least the early months of the pandemic behind you, sociologist and psychotherapist Kathrine McAleese, offers some starting questions (that we’ve expanded):

  • What are our values for this veterinary practice?
    - How can we better honor those values going forward?
  • What best supports the long-term health and well-being of myself and the entire practice team?
    - Which process changes and strategies should we keep using or further improve?
    - What have we been doing that no longer serves us?
  • Knowing what we do from our expert training and experience, what best serves the needs of patients?
  • If we were creating the dream practice, what would that include/exclude?
    - How would it run?
    - What protocols and procedures would make us a shining light of best practice?
    - Do certain combinations of team members work better than others?
    - How can we match shifts to team members’ high-function hours? In other words, when are individual people at their best?
    - What hours of operation work best for our team and clients?
    - What other scheduling plans make more sense for the changes and improvements we’re making?
  • What can be instituted now that perhaps we held off trying or were scared to implement before?
    - What are the risks, and what can we do to mitigate those risks?
  • What do I need to do / who do I need to be to make these changes a success?
For every pandemic-related change you’re considering keeping or pandemic-inspired re-imagining, work through a decision matrix.
Decision matrix chart