One of the reasons why working in a lab can be really difficult is the time management issue. Most scientists have difficulties combining efficiently their life in and outside the lab, because the tasks performed by a scientist vary greatly from administration to teaching, to seeing patients, to performing experiments, etc. Additionally, each experiment is different and can range from a few minutes to several days and even several months. Here a few tips that can help you organize yourself and thus gain free time to enjoy life outside the lab:
1. Organize your time with a schedule and stick to it.
Use Google calendar or any other calendar, preferably on your computer (you can always print it if necessary), to organize your experiments, meetings, classes and everything else that you can predict in advance. Do it week by week. This will help you visualize your planning for longer time periods and decide which tasks to perform and when. The more often you use your calendar, and the easier it will be for you to evaluate the time required for a specific task and thus the easier it will be to organize yourself. Moreover, you will gain in focus, as you won’t have to remember everything you need to do. The important point here is to actually respect the calendar or it won’t be of any use.
2. Define your tasks and prioritize.
Make a list of the tasks you have to do and then organize them by importance. It is not always as easy as it seems! One thing that you should also keep in mind here is your ultimate goal. For example, if you are doing a research project, which is the main objective of the project and what are the steps you need to accomplish to reach this objective? What are the secondary objectives from that project? What other tasks do you have to do, that are not part of the project, like teaching, writing grant proposals, writing papers? Which ones are the most urgent right now? It’s also useful to keep a detailed list of tasks for each main goal or project. I often see researchers loose sight of their main research project and get sucked in sub-projects that end up being all they work on.
Multitasking is something you should learn and practice doing. I don’t mean that you should check your email every 10 minutes while working on a grant proposal. I mean that if you have 5 minutes between two steps of an experiment, use them to finish and send that abstract you were working on instead of going for a coffee. If you decide to go for a coffee, take the opportunity to check the results of this paper you printed that just came out last week, etc. It is also ok to take time to analyze mentally the results of the last experiments you performed while you take some air. Combine various tasks at the same time if it is possible.
4. Use time efficiently.
Using your time efficiently can help you save many hours of the day. Yes you can work in the metro, or train and yes you should do it. Imagine how many hours you could save if you could combine two or even three experiments together. Maybe running one isn’t that different than running two? Maybe you can work one extra hour every night so that you can actually liberate your friday to go hiking. Be flexible and avoid wasting your time as much as you can. It is not about having more time to procrastinate, it’s about liberating time to do other (more interesting) things that you choose to do.
Most people work better on a tight schedule. Their efficiency is increased because of the deadline they have to face. While this might not always be the ideal work setting, it is important that you focus on delivering your work. For example, if you decide to work on an abstract, write it and send it. Don’t keep it to review for the next day, don’t hesitate, rewrite it, wonder if it is good enough and eventually forget about it because you can never seem to be happy with it. Delivering is an important part of your work process and it is really important when doing experiments. Define your goal and reach it.
6. Learn when it is ok to mix professional and personal activities.
Why not read a few articles while you are out at the beach with your family? Sometimes, professional and personal activities are compatible and actually even fun to combine. Popular belief is that these two parts of your lives should be strictly separated. Well I don’t think that’s possible for a truly passionate scientist. You already know or you can learn when and where are right times to mix both settings. Now you just have to do it.
7. Don’t be afraid to say NO.
People will ask for your help all the time. Especially students, especially your PI. You have to learn to say no if you want to have some control on your schedule. You can for example set up a specific time when you will help and assist your students. Believe me, they will get used to it and they will manage to organize their own time accordingly. Similarly, it is ok to say no to duties that are not directly relevant to your functions. Of course, it might be difficult to say no to your lab director at first, but overtime, you will gain in productivity and thus in respect of your peers.
Just as your health can benefit from an annual physical check-up, you can improve your career health with an annual career check-up. December is an ideal time to assess your 2010 professional accomplishments, learn from your experiences, and plan for 2011. This will improve your productivity and aid your professional growth and career advancement in the new year.
Begin by reviewing the past year. List your accomplishments. Don’t neglect professional society accomplishments. Determine the factors that made these accomplishments possible. These include your personal and professional strengths and workplace factors. Workplace factors include abilities of your coworkers, your employer’s facilities, and opportunities offered by your employer. Do the same for your disappointments.
By doing this, you’ll identify strengths on which to build for a professionally successful and fulfilling 2011. You’ll also identify areas where you need to improve. When you assemble this list, also consider what skills and resources you did not exploit in 2010. In planning for 2011, consider how you could capitalize on these under-utilized assets.
In addition to the strengths and resources that you can build upon, identify the abilities you need to strengthen. Your list of your disappointments will help you do this. Determine why you did not achieve some of your 2010 goals. Unachieved goals may be due to inadequate planning and organization, inefficient use of time, insufficient coordination with coworkers, and other factors. Some causes of your unachieved goals may be external such as lack of corporate resources. Can these be overcome by funding outsourcing or some other strategy in 2011?
By now you probably know your project assignments and coworkers for the coming year. Armed with your 2010 assessment, you can enter the 2011 with goals and a career plan will let you capitalize on your strengths and rectify or overcome your weaknesses. Setting goals will help you focus your work and professional activities to keep your career on track. Goals should be clearly defined and easily measured. They should be challenging but realistic. For instance, developing and commercializing one new product in 2011 may be a realistic goal while developing three is not. Most of your professional goals should contribute to your employer’s goals: delivering improved products and services to customers while increasing profits.
However, you should have additional goals that support your own professional and personal needs. These can include acquiring specific new job-related skills or improving areas of weakness you identified in your 2010 assessment. Determine what is necessary to keep up to date in your specialty. Use a current awareness service to alert you to new developments in your field.
Review what opportunities there may be in 2011 to patent the results of your work and publish or present papers. Don’t limit publishing to research journals. Also consider publishing your work in trade association and industry magazines. Most professionals can benefit from making a conscious effort to improve their networking in 2011. Writing in "The Joy of Science," Carl Sindermann defined networking as regular and frequent discussion with peers and colleagues. It’s not an activity that should be confined to job hunting. These discussions can take place by letter, fax, e-mail, or telephone as well as face-to-face. Company seminars and seminars at local universities as well as regional and national technical conferences provide opportunities to maintain and expand your network.
Attending these events can be part of your 2011 career plan. While staying up to date in your specialty is critical, it is also important to develop skills in other areas. These include time management, managerial, and teamwork skills plus the interpersonal skills that make you a well-liked and sought-after coworker. These “soft skills” can be critical to obtaining a promotion, a coveted reassignment, or a new job. Professional societies and trade associations offer opportunities to develop these skills. Consequently these activities can be an important part of your 2011 career plan.
The best career plan can become irrelevant if you become an unexpected victim of a corporate downsizing or take-over. It probably isn’t necessary to develop a detailed plan for this circumstance. However, it is best to have some courses of action clearly in mind should you lose your job or face unexpected reassignment. Keeping your résumé up to date is an essential component of this plan. This contingency planning can make such unplanned events less traumatic.
Your 2011 plan can also help you coordinate your professional activities with your personal life. For instance, by coordinating a business trip with vacation plans, you may be able to visit distant family members and friends or see an interesting part of the country. At home, planning will enable you to budget time for family, civic, charitable, and other personal activities that are important to you.
One of our medical technologists waits until the last minute to get things done. Often, other urgent problems come up that cause him to miss the deadline for the task or project. This frequently results in problems for me as the lab manager and for other team members. How can I get him to get control of his procrastination problem? A Procrastination is defined as putting things off or delaying doing something until a later time. The definition itself does not have a negative connotation, nor should it necessarily. Remember that procrastination is a learned experience, and it is normal.
Procrastination is one way a person protects him/herself from mental or physical discomfort. It is the habit of indecision - everyone procrastinates to some degree. Procrastination can be a big time waster. The reasons we procrastinate include the following: (1) we fear failure, (2) we don't want to do it, (3) the task is too big or difficult, and (4) the task is not high enough on our list of priorities. However, when procrastination seriously affects performance or productivity in the workplace, it needs to be controlled. The first step to helping this person control his procrastination is to examine his procrastination habits - delve into the patterns of what, when, why, and how he procrastinates. To help examine these procrastination habits, have your staff member keep a personal log for several weeks to record the task(s) procrastinated and why they were put off. Also choose one of the following strategies that could best be used to help eliminate procrastination of the task(s) in the future.
A cluttered desk is an interruption every time you try to use it or find anything on it. Establish an environment that is conducive to getting the job done. 4. Use "to do" lists effectively. Marti Bailey says that every time you allow this person to miss a deadline, you support his position that the failure is beyond his control. He is unlikely to ever correct the problem unless you require it. You have essentially assumed responsibility for his problem and will now have to undo the damage. Start changing the situation by having an open and honest conversation with this technologist to review his project performance and to lay out what needs to happen. At this point, a decision needs to be made whether this technologist is suitable for project work. Lynne Garcia advises you to make certain that the individual knows that the due date is irrefutable. Linda Blacklidge and Michele Best agree that time management is key for busy people. Helping him carefully evaluate how he spends his work time and how to make the most of his work time is an essential tool that can benefit him for life. Also provide the technologist with instruction on project management. Bottom line. Every time you allow someone on your team to miss a deadline, you are supporting their position that the failure is beyond their control. They are unlikely to ever correct the problem unless you as manager make it necessary. You can undo the damage by (1) providing some instruction on how to control procrastination and (2) explaining that missing deadlines is unacceptable behavior unless an extension to the deadline has been negotiated before the original due date.
Leave multitasking to your PC
It is a simple fact that people cannot multitask. Admittedly, there are some who rapidly switch from one thing to another but each time you switch there is a cost. It takes a certain amount of run-up time (“now where was I? . . .”) when you pick up a task. Constantly changing from one task to another breaks the concentration. This is made worse these days by the interruption- based lifestyle that computers have introduced. MSN, email, RSS feeds all grab our attention with popups and alerts, each of which momentarily breaks our concentration and stops us getting into a state of flow. Disable those alerts! Author Scott Young (http://www.scotthyoung. com) identified one characteristic shared by all the successful academics he knew: an almost obsessive desire for completion. This is particularly so for the big projects: keep working until the job is done. This is the opposite of the GTD task-list philosophy which likes to fragment work into atomic tasks. As far as possible, stay on the same project until it is complete. That will not always be possible. For example, when a paper has been submitted there will be down time while waiting for the referees reports. Time now for that minor project on the radar. However, as far as possible, never begin a new project until you have finished the last one. Have a major blitz, work late through the night or through Saturday and when the project is complete, take a few days off. You can then leave that project completely behind and clear your mind ready for the next major campaign. Daily routines can be very powerful. Don’t have a full daily timetable, in the world of research that is impractical and even counterproductive. Simple routines, however, can be a powerful ally; I have already mentioned the spoilers’ routine but there are more: printing out and reading one research paper a day at tea break; 15 min lab tidy up; checking on cell cultures; asking your research student if he is OK. It doesn’t matter when you do them; just ensure that whenever possible they are done each day.
No Internet surfing Avoid recreational Internet use during lab time! Pretty obvious tip this but I think that recreational surfing disguised as research is one of the biggest time-drains in the lab today. If a shop assistant was caught Googling, there would be a case for dismissal. It is much harder, though, for a researcher to draw the line. Keeping up with news and trends relevant to our research, looking through Nature, etc are all a necessary part of our work. If, however, you find yourself “just quickly” booking theatre tickets or looking up football results, consider if this can be done “just as quickly” at home! Get into a state of flow. I have saved this point until last because it is the most important. The state of flow is that frame of mind where all thoughts are concentrated on one meaningful piece of work. The mind is totally absorbed in the task at hand, almost to the exclusion of all else. Even the passage of time goes unnoticed. More commonly associated with working on a piece of art or craft, this same state can sometimes be attained in the research lab. You may not get there every day but it should always be your goal. To enable us to adopt a state of flow is why we get all those irritating little jobs out of the way as quickly as possible, why we delegate as much as we can, why we should do one thing at a time and why we work to completion. Its enemies are multitasking, constant emailing, instant messenger and online banking in work hours. State of flow is the goal that all these other tips lead up to.
The final word In all this, we have forgotten to ask the most important question: do TM techniques actually make any difference? In view of the money and time spent on time management, there is surprisingly little empirical evidence on whether they really do make us more productive. A 1994 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology asked this question and came to the startling conclusion that “engaging in some time management behaviours may have beneficial effects on tensions and job satisfaction but not on job performance.” (Macan, 1994, Journal of Applied Psychology Vol. 79, 381-391). Admittedly, newer TM methods such as GTD have emerged since then but what does productivity ultimately mean to the lab researcher? Are you looking for a reputationas a good organiser of lab parties, or making exciting discoveries? If you are heading for the first, then sign up for TM. If the latter is more appealing, stop reading this article and go off and get yourself into a state of flow.
Time management is big business. Seduced by the promise of a low stress, high output lifestyle, individuals or their employers are paying out large sums of cash for seminars, tapes and books to make them more productive and more ef- ficient. Some of the time-management (or TM) techniques have something of a cult about them. Testimonies lure the seekers after productivity enlightenment. For example, “The amazing XXX system has transformed my life, made me less stressed and more productive”. Just a quick Google on time management will show you just how many people are tortured by TM anxiety and how TM can easily develop into a full- blown, pathological obsession. To separate the silver from the ore, I have distilled the best of what TM techniques have to offer into a list of ten simple guidelines, firstly to optimise use of time and secondly to avoid TM anxiety.
Decide What’s Important
Put most of your efforts into what matters most. Have a set time of day, with a fixed duration, for dealing with irritating little jobs that aren’t furthering your work. Call them “spoilers”. These include things like reading emails, filling in safety forms or writing reports about a meeting. The idea is to box these spoilers up like a shoe-box in a drawer, the drawer is your day and the box is the set-aside time slot. It stops the little odds and ends spilling out and filling the drawer. Let your attitude be, “Let’s get this rubbish out of the way as soon as possible so I can get down to some real work”. From arriving at work until the first tea break is a natural period to accomplish this but everyone is different. Certainly, give each spoiler its due attention and effort, otherwise you may end up having to do the job again (or worse) but don’t let these tasks spill over their boundaries and steal time from research. I am not a great believer in to-do lists.
They have a way of growing faster than you can take things off them. To-do lists too easily become a tyrant! However, this little list of irritating things you just have to do – spoilers – is simply there to keep tabs on things and to make sure nothing vital gets forgotten. Do not use it as a work scheduler. Simply scan this list first thing in the morning to make sure there isn’t anything there you really need to do before starting the real work.It doesn’t need to be a list on a piece of paper. It can be the tasks list on Outlook or, as in my case, a pile of email printouts, order forms, or anything to remind me of what needs to be done. It would be ideal to have only one project on the go at a time and never start anything else until this is done. However, that is unrealistic for most of us. A project can “freeze” while you are waiting for input from someone else, or a resource may become unavailable for a while. By having one or two other projects in view, this downtime can be used to prepare for later projects.One solution is to have a mentally demanding project on the go – your main attention- user – with a less demanding project as a backup. This secondary project should be something that can be picked up or set aside without difficulty. Don’t be afraid to say no. This is the best way to gain extra time. We are tempted to think we need to be doing everything that is asked of us. We are afraid that unless we say yes to everything we are asked to do, we will appear lazy. There is no way, how- ever, of getting around the fact that there are only so many hours in the day and only so many things we can do well. It is better to refuse to do something, than to take it on and do a bad job. Or, more likely, to end up doing a thousand minor jobs at the expense of doing real research. There are tactful ways to say no: “Yes, of course I can organise a lab party. I’ll have to postpone that Nature paper, though . . .”
Delegate But Maintain Control
Pass a task for which you are ultimately responsible to someone else, as often as possible. It can either be someone who is fully capable of doing that task, or alternatively someone who will learn from doing that task. Don’t leave it to them entirely, though, even if they are fully capable. If it is a time critical job, or one for which you will hang if it doesn’t get done right, figure out how much time before the deadline you would need to get it done yourself and at that point check tactfully how it is going. Then, if things are really going wrong you can at least step in, get the job done yourself and save your reputation. Keep some sort of reminder of things you have delegated and make sure you check up on them at periodic intervals.
Step 6: Just Say No
"No is the most powerful time-saving word in the English dictionary," said Dr. Frings. It's a hard word to say for many people, so it is important that you learn how to decline tactfully, yet firmly when a task doesn't help you achieve your goals.
"Point out that your motivation is not to get out of work but to save time to do a better job on your goals and your plan to reach your goals," he said. "When you are convinced of the importance of saying 'no' to the unimportant things, life gets easier."
Step 7: Control Interruptions
Dr. Frings suggests establishing times during the day when you will not be interrupted. You should plan for interruptions so that your day is not ruined if you are disturbed a couple times.
"When you plan to be interrupted, schedule routine tasks," he advised.
Step 8: Use New Technology
Take advantage of as much technology as possible as you go about your daily routine. "Remember to listen to instructional and motivational cassette tapes while traveling and waiting," said Dr. Frings. "Practice your presentations into a tape player and play them back."
Step 9: Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection
"Excellence is attainable, gratifying and healthy. Perfection is often unattainable and causes frustration. Striving for perfection frequently costs more time than the increased benefits justify," warned Frings. It's a waste of time to try to do things perfectly every time -- you are striving for something that you cannot necessarily achieve, and, therefore, causing yourself and others added stress.
Step 10: Control Procrastination
"Procrastination is the habit of indecision," said Dr. Frings. To conquer procrastination, visualize the end result of the task you need to complete instead of the task itself. Ways to accomplish this are to use "To Do" lists effectively and reward yourself when you complete a job. Henderson suggests that you try to leave the office at the office. "It's very hard for people," she admitted.
"Every once in a while when I'm really feeling behind on something, I come in on Saturday or work late. When I finish the tasks, it's a great sense of relief that I know it is done and I can move on to the next thing instead of having it hang constantly over my head."
Time management is an ongoing process. "Things change all the time and you may need to tweak things here or there," Henderson advised. "Time management reduces stress, increases productivity and helps you reach your goals," said Frings. "It helps you in your personal, mental and spiritual life -- it's a lifestyle that I live every day. "If time management was easy to do, everyone would be doing it," he continued. However, the challenge of practicing good time management is worth the end result -- more time. "Time is money," he said. "You only have a certain amount of it every day. It's just your choice how you want to spend it."
A health care professional's day is a busy one. Sometimes, it may seem that there are not enough hours - or minutes - to accomplish everything that you need to do. That's why time management skills are crucial.
"Wasting just 1 hour a day means in 10 years you will have lost 3,650 hours or 152 days of your life. Every hour is important," according to Christopher S. Frings, PhD, CSP, a health care consultant and speaker from Birmingham, AL.
Dr. Frings described time management as a survival skill. "To be able to survive and thrive, you have to be able to manage your time effectively," he said. "You cannot manage time -- you can only manage events. Time management is making good choices and using the time you have effectively. It's a learned and acquired skill and something that has to be practiced every day. "When you ask health care professionals what the most important thing they wish they had control over, they'd say time management," said Dr. Frings.
Administrators and clinical managers need to learn time management skills because the demands on their time are getting increasingly difficult, said Lisa Henderson, a medical technologist now working for a proficiency testing provider. "When I first started out as a laboratory technologist, our main focus was in the clinical lab setting, and that's just not how it is any longer,"she said. "It became a necessity for me to organize both my work and personal life.
"There are a number of different methods out there, but I didn't find a particular one that met my needs, so I picked little pieces here and there that fit with what my priorities are," she revealed. "I mainly looked in different journals that had tips more specific for the medical environment."
Dr. Frings, author of the AACC Press book, The Hitchhikers Guide to Effective Time Management, said that to practice good time management, you have to make it a habit. "It takes 21 days to develop a new habit. I give people a 30-day plan to free up 2 hours a day," he said. "You have to do it a little bit every day, and it's primarily identifying your top five time wasters and getting control of them."
Dr. Frings outlined 10 ways to better use your time to help you get on the road to managing it wisely.
Step 1: Set Goals
First, he suggests that you set goals and have a plan to reach those goals.
"Goals are the building blocks of time management," said Dr. Frings. "Without time management, you can't achieve your goals. Without goals, you cannot practice time management. Goals are vehicles to make our dreams come true."
Frings also suggests writing your goals down.
"Writing a goal clarifies it. If you cannot write the goals, you probably cannot achieve them," he said. "Ask yourself if what you are about to do will help you accomplish one of your goals or objectives in life."
Step 2: Prioritize
"If you fail to plan, you are, in effect, planning to fail," said Dr. Frings. "Each hour you spend in effective planning can save you 3 to 4 hours in execution and achieve better results."
He suggested that you prioritize your work by creating a "To Do" list at the end of each day. Assign the letters A, B, C and D to the items on the list, with A's being most important and D's being least important. Review the list in the morning and spend more time on the more important projects.
Henderson uses a program to send notes, prioritize jobs and plan out her schedule in relation to daily, weekly, monthly and long-term projects. "For me, the best way to manage time is figuring out what's most important to me and making sure those tasks are getting completed," instructed Henderson.
Henderson pulls up her daily calendar and evaluates it at the beginning of each day. "On most of my projects, I evaluate how long it is going to take me to accomplish it," she said. "I put things on my calendars as a reminder. I usually tend to try to have my calendar current for 6 to 12 months out. Normally, I set that up with that frequency and add to it. Therefore, I can evaluate my time.
"Keep the calendar current most of the time so you don't feel like you're ending up spending a lot of time catching up," she also advised. "The key to prioritizing is to isolate and identify that valuable 20 percent," noted Frings. "If you have a list of 10 things to do and you do the right two, you get 80 percent of your work completed."
Step 3: Increase Effectiveness, Reduce Urgency
"Efficiency means doing the job right, but effectiveness means doing the right job efficiently," said Dr. Frings. He explained that important tasks are usually non-urgent, long-term tasks. To better manage your time, spend more on the important tasks and less on so-called "urgent" tasks. "Work toward reducing the urgent things you must do so you'll have time for your priorities."
One way to increase effectiveness it to start meetings on time, said Henderson. "After a while, people realize that they need to show up for the meetings on time," she said. "However, you have to respect their schedules, too. Have an agenda and set a time limit for each topic. Make sure the follow-up is easy so everyone in the group knows who has the responsibility to complete different tasks."
Step 4: Delegate Effectively
Frings said that to be a good leader, you need to become an effective delegator. "A catalyst causes things to happen without it being used up," he explained. "If you don't delegate, you'll soon be used up." If you don't delegate well, you will attempt too much and will be involved in crisis management."
"Determine what you can delegate," agreed Henderson. "Some tasks might be more important to complete but maybe you're not the one to do them."
Step 5: Manage Your Details
"Stay away from routine details, but pay attention to important ones," Dr. Frings said. "Minimize, consolidate, delegate or just eliminate them if possible." "Organize your day," Henderson added. "Normally, a day's going to traditionally fit into a normal pattern. Use the first half hour of your day to take care of little things like checking messages and returning phone calls so that they are out of the way as soon as possible."
Tidy up before you leave to make it easier for you when you return to the office in the morning. "I leave my desk in an organized manner so I know exactly what I need to do when I come in," Henderson said.
To Be Continued
Time management refers to the development of processes and tools that increase efficiency and productivity. It also includes slight modifications in our day-to-day life that can help you reach great heights.
When we think of time management, however, we tend to think of personal time management, loosely defined as managing our time to waste less time on doing the things we have to do so we have more time to do the things we want to do.
Therefore, time management is often thought of or presented as a set of time management skills; the theory is that once we master the time management skills, we'll be more organized, efficient, and happier.
Personal time management skills include