Over the years, I have noticed that laboratory environments are just as fragile and sensitive as the experiments performed within. If permitted, the lab can deteriorate into a chaotic mess within only a few days. That is why it is crucial to establish an organizational system in the lab.
Here are a few of my tips for creating order from chaos:
Prioritize and Write it Down
In any given day, scientists have a wide range of tasks that require their attention. Rather than trying to handle everything at once, start your day by making a list and arranging the tasks by priority. First, fill in the items that you have no control over (meeting with your PI, seminars, etc). Second, list the tasks that have to get done that day and fill them in based on the time they require. Third, fill in any unused space with routine tasks that aren’t time sensitive (such as making stock reagents). Just make sure one of the listed priorities involves taking a short break to recharge your batteries. The rest won’t matter if you are too drained to do them properly. Though it may seem miniscule, the habitual development of this “priority list” will prove to be just as essential to a successful career as the data you acquire in the lab.
Organize Your Work Space Regularly
In addition to having a plan of attack, you should routinely clean and organize your work space. It is very easy to ignore the waste and clutter that has enveloped the work bench after a long day of work. However, neglecting to clean up at the end of the day is often the beginning of a cycle that will result in delays down the road. Failing to spend 15 minutes organizing on Monday could result in extra hours of cleaning on Friday. Don’t experience the butterfly effect in your workspace!
Make a Stock List
Reagents, samples, and consumable equipment come and go quickly in the lab. Often these items run out at the worst possible moments. This can set back research several days since most companies take three days or more to send an ordered item.
Having a monitored stock list of the most commonly used lab supplies can alleviate this problem. The list should include the name of the item and ordering information such as vendor and size/volume normally ordered. When an item goes below a certain “warning level”, simply look it up on the list and order it at the end of the day.
No matter how organized you may be, it won’t help much if your colleagues are not. It can lead to lab unhappiness (and sometimes all out wars!) if you and your labmates don’t have the same standards of cleanliness and orderliness. The best method to resolve this issue is to develop a cleaning diary for the lab, and designate monthly rotating duties to members of the lab. Put the rota in spreadsheet form as well, and place the sheets on everything in the lab that requires monitoring. The more eyes there are on the cleaning rotas, the more your colleagues will feel obligated to stick with their designated duties.
In time, cleaning and organizing will become a habit to which you all will become accustomed, and a noticeable overall lab order will take place naturally.