Wednesday, 29 August 2018 08:34

Managing Your Time in the Lab: 4 Ways to Have Structured Days

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Published in Careers

A year into my postdoctoral fellowship, I realized that I enjoyed spending my evenings at home. To achieve this level of work-life balance, I needed to change how I got work done. I had to fit more research into a structured 9-to-5 day. This is doable in the lab, and with a bit of perspective and planning upfront, you can go back to having a life outside of work. Here’s how:

  1. Determine Your Short- and Long-term Goals
    When do you plan to have your figures done for your paper? What experiments are going into your presentation at the international meeting in 3 months? How about your department meeting next month? These are just a few of the many questions you should ask yourself regarding what work needs to get done to meet your long-term goals. Then, break up the long-term goals into approachable, short-term goals. What experiments do you need to complete this week in order to stay on target for reaching your long-term goals? If it takes your cells 5 days to grow to a useful density, you should incorporate that extra time in your planning. This type of structured planning allows you to stay organized and remain flexible to changing circumstances. Moreover, if you do encounter setbacks along the way, you will be able to determine how those setbacks will affect your short- and long-term goals. Precise fine-tuning can make surprises a little less… surprising. 
  2. Set Realistic Daily Expectations
    Now that you know what you need to achieve for the week, let’s determine what that means for your daily accomplishments. Can you fit this week’s accomplishments into manageable daily tasks? How do you know? I recommend ditching the to-do list and instead, do task managing—map tasks to the amount of time they take. Estimate how long it takes you to complete a task, including setup, execution and troubleshooting. You may need to break more complex experiments down into individual protocols so that you can realistically fit them in your daily planning. Unlike your conventional to-do list, the task manager should prevent you from starting a 2-hour process at 6pm! 

  3. Assess Your Productivity
    In your now perfectly planned day, are you losing focus because you have too many energy-draining tasks packed too closely together? Are you making mistakes and having to repeat experiments over? If so, you may need to assess what tasks you can and cannot do together. The tasks that people find particularly taxing will vary from person to person, but try to structure your day to maximize your cognitive bandwidth. As a near-sighted person, I realized that I could not load protein gels and set up PCR plates in the same afternoon because it caused too much tension on my eyes. However, splitting cells between those molecular biology tasks was helpful for recuperation. Take good care of yourself so that you can give your best effort to your work! Find the right balance of tasks for you to maximize your cognitive bandwidth, or schedule breaks for yourself when you know that you will need them.

  4. Respect Other People’s Time
    You need to coordinate your efforts with other people to accomplish your short and long-term goals. A hallmark of emotional intelligence is realizing the impact that your needs may have on your peers and colleagues. Whether it be negotiating scarce resources or leveraging expertise, you should align your goals with the bandwidth of your colleagues. Giving people advanced notice of your needs shows that you value their input and respect their time.

Strive to begin your projects with the end goals in mind. It requires commitment and a bit of practice, but goal setting and task managing will save you time and maximize your output. Now get to work!


Last modified on Wednesday, 29 August 2018 08:51
Caleb McKinney

Caleb McKinney is Assistant Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Training and Development for Biomedical Graduate Education at Georgetown University Medical Center. He graduated from New York University with a Ph.D. in microbiology. During his postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, he volunteered on several training committees and managed a cadre of professional development programs for research trainees. At Georgetown, Dr. McKinney develops and oversees biomedical career development programs and provides individualized career-related assistance to students and postdocs seeking a wide range of careers.  He hopes to help them develop positive outlooks and professional strategies that align with their individual experiences, passions and goals. He can be reached via LinkedIn.