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Rounds: Making ‘fresh starts’ all year

Jan. 7, 2020, 11:16 AM


There’s a copy of the Serenity Prayer in plain view on my desk. It’s been there for several years now and reminds me to pause when facing what can feel like “incoming fire” from all directions. One phrase, “…change the things I can,” has particular relevance for the New Year.

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

As we all know, the holiday season and the end of the calendar year are traditional catalysts for reflection and change. We commit to hitting the reset button and tackling those hard things we’ve been wanting to pursue, but for some reason can’t quite push to the top of the pile.

This is familiar to us at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In an enterprise as large and diverse as this, the cumulative buildup of the vast array of tasks before us can feel overwhelming. And as we approach 30,000 people advancing health care services for patients, research, training, support and administration at hundreds of locations — from Middle Tennessee to West Africa — the project list only expands.

So, as we think about tackling more traditional New Year’s resolutions, like shedding a few pounds, is there any evidence that the same approach can be useful for the never-ending project list at work?

Yes — definitely.

Research by Katherine Milkman, PhD, at the Wharton School shows the “fresh start effect,” or that upbeat feeling of moving forward with a clean slate, applies to the start of many cycles we recognize as humans — from the first day of a new year to the first day of a month.

She also finds that we can start new cycles on our own as a way to overcome the sense of being “dragged down” by the routines in which we find ourselves. It could be a new week, a new rotation, or even the first day back after PTO.

Why does it work? Milkman finds in these fresh start ‘moments,’ or times when people feel a separation from their past failures. Essentially, those failures are the “old you,” and fresh start moments are the “new you.” When we can mentally “wipe away” those disappointments and start anew with a clean slate, it makes us feel more confident and drives us forward.

We have our share of “hard things” on all of our to-do lists at VUMC. Finding new ways to reduce waste, to generate revenue to support research and training, and to become cost-efficient as revenues across U.S. health care continue to grow slower than costs are just a few. Re-engineering the way we engage with patients to improve their satisfaction while reducing the burden of documentation by our clinical teams are high on that list.

Among these and many other challenges, guiding VUMC into the future is akin to turning an aircraft carrier — it will take patience and tons of energy from all of us, working as a team!

Most of us tackle the easier things in our email inbox first. Putting a few in the “done” column gives us a sense of accomplishment. But finding the energy and courage to act on the harder things creates real and sustainable progress that makes all the difference for those we serve — allowing us to “change the things we can.”

This year, I hope you find moments of success and satisfaction in all parts of your life. And when you get overwhelmed, stuck in a rut, or need inspiration, look for ways you can initiate the “fresh start effect.”

And as we all make a fresh start in 2020, please know how much you’re appreciated. Take care and Happy New Year.


Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

President and CEO, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

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