A Short Course in Time Management, Lab Productivity and Holiday Meal Preparation

Dr. Jill Schumacher, Department of Genetics
G&D 2010 Newsletter

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once. -Albert Einstein

For a graduate student in Genes & Development, it can often feel like there are far too many things to do in a single day, a week, until your next committee meeting, or until a draft of your first manuscript is ready for submission. 24/7=168 hours a week. Where does all of that time go???

Dieters often find that keeping track of everything they eat over the course of a week in a food diary is very enlightening; it exposes mindless snacking and induces accountability since that afternoon Frappucino will be recorded for posterity (or until the diary goes in the box with the “Thigh Master” and “Abdominizer”). Keeping a time diary can be equally illuminating. Try keeping track of how long every task or activity takes, and/or what you are doing every 15-30 minutes throughout the day. You may find that that the minute or two you spent checking your Facebook updates or chatting on the phone was actually 45 minutes. Oops. After a week of keeping your time diary, tally up time spent on different activities (e.g., e-mail, doing experiments, attending seminars, meals, commuting, etc.). Identify the time that wasn’t well spent (make “downtime” count too; do something you really enjoy).

The Internet is the most powerful magnifier of slack ever invented. -Author Unknown

You may find that a great deal of your time is spent in front of the computer; some quite productively while a lot of it, well, not so much. To plug the computer time sink, try the following:

  • Only check your e-mail a few times a day (turn off e-mail notifications).
  • Make sure your Internet home page isn’t more inviting than your lab bench. The MD Anderson intranet home page is a good place to start.
  • Don’t go to sites that are a problem for you: games, Facebook, news, watching paint dry (no joke), etc. Know thyself. Treat these sites like watching TV. You wouldn’t sit down and watch TV in the lab, would you? Well, you shouldn’t.
  • Limit online research time. Be careful not to use PubMed as a procrastination tool to put off reading the articles you already found or writing the next section of your manuscript.

Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.
 -Henry Ford

Planning is the key to productivity at the lab bench. One easy way of keeping track of your tasks is to create lists that cover different time frames: One year, six months, one month, one week, and daily. If your goal is to have a paper submitted in a year, that is part of your one year list, getting the figures completed may be on your six-month list, while completing the experiments for Figure 1 and 2 are on your one month list. Your weekly list and daily list should incorporate the overall structure of your week and day.

Keep a calendar populated with your standing commitments (e.g., lab meeting, Blaffer seminar, etc). Add to this your appointments/one-time meetings that week, then incorporate the experiments you plan to do that week and break it down to daily tasks (e.g., weekly list: complete kinase assay; daily list: transform expression construct into bacteria). Create your weekly list once a week and your daily list every evening. This method ensures you know exactly what you are going to do as soon as you step in the lab each morning.

  • Working in the lab is like cooking Thanksgiving dinner every day. -Jill Schumacher

  • Prepare a menu. (Prepare your list of experiments.)
  • Make sure you have what you need. (Gather reagents.)
  • When should the turkey go in the oven, for how long? (Make a daily plan.)
  • Prepare do-ahead items the day before. (Start overnight cultures/long incubations/make the buffers.)
  • Stagger the dishes so that you can prepare the dessert while the potatoes are boiling, etc. No wasted time and dinner will be on time. (Plan your experiments so that one is incubating while you start the next.)
  • Clean up as you go. (Duh.)
  • Limit distractions or something will be ruined. (Did I add the ATP already?)
  • Presentation matters. Good food looks good. (Make sure your data is high quality and publishable.)
  • 8 hours of cooking will be demolished in 15 minutes. (One slide may summarize 5 years of work.)

Bon Appétit!

Thanks to Janice Simon in Faculty Development for valuable background information for this story.


Useful Sources

Getting Things Done, by David Allen

Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Joan Bolker

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