So you just got out of your adviser’s office, feeling inspired, you get to your desk and look at the 27 new things added to your never-ending to-do list. You may feel overwhelmed, like you will never get all of this done; and that is true, you never will. The question is how do you go about selecting the tasks to focus on first?  Which ones are you going to eliminate from your list altogether? It is time to prioritize!

There are numerous books on time management and prioritization: Eat That Frog, First Things First, The 4- Hour Workweek, or my parody for graduate students: The 14-Hour Workday (manuscript in preparation), etc. Some of the advice offered by the authors are invaluable to everybody including scientists, and I’ll mention them in this article, but unfortunately, some of them are just not practical in our field of work. For example, identifying tasks as urgent vs. important is difficult in the lab, as there is often no solid deadline. It is hard to select the task that will give you the highest yield, because there is no way of knowing which experiment will be the most fruitful. Then comes the dilemma of reading vs. doing experiments, and the list goes on, and on, and on.

So how do we prioritize our to-do list in the lab? Here’s a 4-step guide to define your 2 main goals and follow them one task at a time:

Put it in Front of You: Write Everything Down

The first thing you have to do RIGHT NOW is make a list of ALL the things you can, want to, or should do. This shouldn’t take you more than 5 minutes, so you can do it right now. You can either do it on a piece of paper, or on the computer. I recommend an excel sheet. There is no upper limit to how many things you can write down.  Write as broadly or as specifically as you want, just empty your brain from as many lab-related tasks as possible. You can add (or subtract) items from this list as time goes by. It is almost magical how writing things down can take away so much of your anxiety!

Prioritize: Pick your 2 Goals for the Week

Each one of us has our own unique set of big picture goals. For most of us grad students and post-docs, these include but are not limited to: working on my next publication(s), preparing for my career, increasing my knowledge, getting organized, writing a thesis. Now, in front of every item on your list, write which category they fall under.

Now here’s the tough part, for a given week, you can pick only 1-3 (preferably 2) categories to focus on. You have got to pick the ones that are the most important at this stage of your career. 7th year graduate student? You probably want to pick graduating as your priority. This is where each individual has to truly evaluate his or her situation, just follow your intuition. It is time to prioritize.

Pick 2 Items Each Day from your 2 Main Goals

Now that you have the 2 main priorities for the next week, pool all the items in those two categories together. You want to plan your days to reflect your goals. But how do you pick which item from your goals to pursue?

First, if a task takes more than 3 hours to do, break it down so it would take 3 hours or less. This will ensure that you can select 2 tasks per day, and have time for side-tasks like working on your notebook, writing emails, helping junior lab mates, etc.

Now ask yourself, if you could only do two things today, what 2 tasks would you choose to get done and feel fulfilled at the end of day? These 2 will be your focus for today. If there are any other items that you would like to do that are not priorities, do them after the main 2 tasks are done.

Take Action: One Thing at a Time

Get to it. There’s only so much prioritizing you can do. Don’t get so occupied with what to do next that you end up doing nothing at all. Once you’ve picked your goal of the day, what step you take toward that goal is not as important as taking a step. Do one thing at a time and while you’re at it, don’t worry about whether this is the best use of your time, because it definitely is!

Staying on Track

Now to make sure you can stick to what really matters, here are some tips:

  • Say no!

Throughout the day, there are numerous times when time can just slip by, learn to say no to things that aren’t a priority.

  • Do one thing at a time!

There are numerous articles on BiteSize Bio on the consequences of multitasking.

  • Be flexible!

There might be times you have to work on things that are not your priority, but circumstances require that you do them. For example: it’s your lab chore to make LB plates or your adviser wants you to read/write something, etc.

  • Keep track!

Take note of where your time goes and how much you spend on each task. Read about calculating your fudge ratio and prioritize!