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How to Increase Your Productivity in the Lab

Lab work, as we are all aware, comes with many pressures: one of which is productivity. You want to generate as much quality data as possible to meet publication deadlines or perhaps the elusive thesis. Sometimes it may feel like hours spent in the lab don’t match the amount of data produced: for some this is the nature of your research, but for others (myself included) this is due to ineffective use of time.

Reading articles about working effectively and attendance at personal development courses led me to realize that I may be busy but not always productive. In fact one course facilitator succinctly put it “to me the last one in the lab at night is not the hardest worker but likely the least effective worker.” This struck a chord with me, and I decided that I needed to ensure my time was spent more effectively.

I am a sucker for anything claiming to provide handy tips on improving productivity, and so it’s about time I had a list of my own. Here are 10 tips that I have found useful!

1.  Plan your day in in advance

You think this is an obvious one, but there is a difference between knowing what you are going to do and having all possible pre-made reagents and equipment ready. If you spend half the morning running around preparing samples and buffers you often lose the momentum to get things done and run behind on your schedule for the day.

2.  Have realistic goals…and stick to them!

Don’t give yourself too much to do…you might very well manage to get it all done before quitting time, but will it be your best work? Don’t be too easy on yourself either, but it’s rather unsatisfying if you can never leave work thinking “I completed my list for today!”

3.  Time-log your day

If, like me, you never know where all the hours in a day go! Popping by another lab for a chat can be really helpful; finding out what others are doing can give you ideas for your own work or maybe they have that antibody you need. Sometimes a few minutes of distraction can be beneficial but not if you spend all day doing it!

To keep track of your time, log it! Take notice of how you spend the majority of your day. Do you underestimate how long a task will take or are you easily distracted by chatting, helping others, email? To help you out, you can use an app designed just for this task.

4.  Fill in the gaps!

A common bit of advice is fill the time between experiments with useful tasks like reading a paper instead of having another coffee. I find that because of my personality, I’m easily side-tracked, and I can often get so involved with my time filling task that I forget to back and sort out the original experiment! In this case, I would say avoid tasks that can break your focus such as scientific papers and emails and instead make a batch of reagents or have a quick tidy up of your workstation…basically a mundane task that needs doing but nothing too distracting!

5.  Figure out how you work!

I found a link to an article that I think is fun; it has a quiz to find out what type of worker you are and suggestions on how you can plan your day to complement this. I think that knowing what makes you tick makes it easier to plan out how to navigate the day’s tasks. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but give it a go if you like that sort of thing.

6.  Be organized

Really it makes such a big difference to keep data and results organized: know what you have done and the results and avoid unnecessary work later. Check out one of our articles on how to keep your data organized.

7.  Don’t put things off

Don’t avoid that task you hate and leave it until the end of the day to get started! It will always end up taking longer than you think and keep you in the lab later than you want and then you resent it even more tomorrow!

8.  Find a suitable reading space

No matter your research topic, keeping up to date with the literature is vital and finding the best place to do that is definitely time well spent. A handy bit of advice I picked up was to find a space where you can read effectively— be it the library, outside or at a café, everyone is different. Wherever it is should minimize distractions such as phones, Facebook and email! Responding to emails can be the most distracting thing for effective work! Other colleagues and supervisors asking for a quick favor or stopping by for a chat doesn’t aid your literature search. One hour spent elsewhere while concentrating is much better than 3 in the office with interruptions.

9.  Get a jump start!

It’s never too early to start writing your thesis, and anything you do now will only help you later. Set up documents on your computer where you can write down thoughts and ideas during moments of inspiration. Perhaps set a daily writing target of 50-100 words; this will soon build up!

Depending on your thesis sometimes you will finish a complete section of work. If that’s the case then write it up while it is fresh in your mind!

Even typing out your methods properly is a real timesaver later and also all the technology and reagents are nearby to check for the necessary information…much easier now than 2 years later when you can’t quite remember where that bottle was stored!

10.  Get a life!

It’s tough doing a PhD and keeping up your social life but it is important and has been shown to make people more effective at work. Spend a few hours a week at least away from your project doing something fun: a hobby, catch up with friends or go to the gym…whatever you do for fun. As easy it is to let these things slide when work gets busy it’s not any less important; these activities nourish and refresh you and are a great outlet when you are going through a difficult spell in the lab.

Photo courtesy of Denise Krebs.

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