Planning in research: from long-term strategy to a single experiment. Part 2: Tactics

Now that you’ve established what your high priority projects are, you should think about how to schedule the tasks within these projects to make the best of your time. Hopefully, you’ve come up with what the skeleton of your project is and how the tree of life is structured. These will be important in figuring out what is more and what is less urgent in terms of individual tasks. Once you have a decent idea of what must be done and in what order, you can start scheduling out your week. Here, I would strongly recommend using the “Big rocks” approach pioneered by Steve Covey (I highly recommend his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” book by the way).Identify your “big rocks” – long experiments that will take a lot of focus and preparation and that may take a big chunk of your day. Importantly, these “big rocks” need not be long and tedious, but they should be high priority – experiments without which you cannot move on. I also tend to give high priority to stuff that is perhaps somewhat less important, but which entails long wait times. Let’s say you have a super important experiment that will take a day, and another one, slightly less important, but which will take a week to complete. I would schedule the latter one first.

After you identify your “big rocks”, plan them out throughout the week. Make sure to be reasonable and do not overextend yourself. Experiments always take longer than expected, so give yourself a bit of leeway, unless you are ready to pull off another one of those 70h-long weeks. Once the “big rocks” are in place, you will find that you have pockets of time where you can put “smaller rocks”. Let’s say you have a PAGE gel run on Monday, and that will take two hours, so in the meantime you can, say, design primers for a PCR reaction – put that in your schedule as well.

Once the “smaller rocks” are in, your schedule should look pretty full. You will still have little pockets of time here and there, which you can use to do more trivial and low priority stuff, like answering e-mails, ordering supplies, cleaning your bench, or getting another espresso (is that the fifth one today ???).

In the beginning, before you figure out your rhythm, I would strongly recommend that you write your schedule up in much detail and update it as you go along. An editable file would work better than a post-it. I use the same program – Freeplane, both for scheduling and as an electronic lab notebook, but use any approach that will work for you.

Below are some rookie mistakes that you should definitely avoid:

1. Rushing into experiments without planning them out

This will guarantee that you will use your time inefficiently – you will instinctively gravitate towards less demanding experiments and will do them first, leaving the “big rocks” for the next week, and the next, and the next, … you get my point.

2. Starting your day with trivial things

Resist the urge to open your inbox in the morning or to visit your favorite website. This will suck up your time like crazy. I have actually set my e-mail app to launch in offline mode and I only turn it online a couple times a day. I deal with most of my e-mail on the phone on my way to meetings or waiting for the elevator.

3. Confusing the “urgent” and the “important”

This is a big point in Covey’s “7 Habits” book. Some things look urgent but they aren’t really that important in the long run. Let’s say you get an e-mail from the accounting department that they are missing an invoice for an order. Should you take a break in your important experiment to go find the invoice? Hell, no! You will do that in the 5-minute time pockets between one gel and the next and while you wait for your centrifugation to end. If not today, tomorrow, or next week will still be fine. Your experiments are your TOP priority, everything else is secondary. OK, if the chief accountant comes banging on your door, maybe you’ve pushed it a bit too far… Also, if you are a trainee (grad student/postdoc), don’t hesitate to talk to your advisor and reschedule a one-on-one meeting if it interferes with a really important experiment.

4. Not blocking out “think time”

If you use this approach effectively, you will have a really busy schedule. There are always important experiments to be done and never enough time to do them. Make sure, however, that you are not overwhelmed with experimental work without any time for in-depth pondering on your project. My personal conviction is that most really good insigths in research come from very in-depth consideration of a specific problem. It will usually take you a day or two to really consider any question in any depth. If you don’t leave yourself any time for that, you will keep doing more of the same, instead of figuring out creative (and often easier) ways of addressing the question. Schedule longer blocks of “think time” (at least 2-3 hours per block) and really make good use of them. Yes, that means not spending this time organizing your bench or getting this latte that you are dying for from a coffee shop accross the street. Shorter time blocks may be effective for less complicated stuff, but most complex projects will take a lot of reading and thinking to figure out. This kind of intense focus can only be achieved if you work for a long time without interruptions.

Stephen Covey calls that “Sharpening the Saw”. He uses a very nice illustration of a woodcutter who is so busy sawing wood that he says he doesn’t have the time to sharpen the saw, and makes very little progress cutting with a blunt saw. Similarly, an experimenter who keeps churning out results without spending any time thinking about them will not be a very effective researcher.

5. Not taking your biorhytms into account

Every one of us has times of the day when they feel more energized and times when they just aren’t there. Make sure you keep track of when you are in best shape and schedule important procedures around those times. Also, your think time should only be in these “high performance” periods.

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