Does your laboratory resemble the nest of an overly enthusiastic laboratory rat that went on a scavenger hunt and squirrelled away all that it has found? Do you find yourself playing Jenga with stacks of Petri dishes and freezer boxes? Have you ever attempted to decipher the meaning of the mysterious string of numbers on a glycerol stock vial you labelled years ago but have long since forgotten about? These are signs that your laboratory is in need of some housekeeping.
The goal of most conventional tidying methods is to make the task less daunting by encouraging you to clean and organize little-by-little. Unfortunately, the mess can often accumulate at a rate faster than your tidying efforts can handle! The KonMari MethodTM, conceptualized by renowned tidying expert Marie Kondo, aims to make cleaning and organizing as stress-free as possible by breaking down the process into six basic rules. While it is unlikely that Marie Kondo had laboratories in mind when she created it, the KonMariTM Method can be applied to all spaces!
1. Commit Yourself to Tidying Up
Judging by the number of cluttered bench, freezer, and fridge spaces in laboratories, many scientists are not good housekeepers. We do not spend much effort in tidying up our work spaces, prompting laboratory managers to issue notices to clean up every time there is an inspection. While some claim that a messy workspace is an indication of genius, a messy laboratory, on the other hand, is a disaster waiting to happen. Misplaced microorganism strains and reagents can result in significant delays in the progress of research, which will incur the wrath of your PI. Also, time and effort spent sifting through the mess are better channelled towards productive activities, like reading and writing.
If you want to avoid the mad rush of getting rid of a 4 year old mess in the 2 day deadline set by the laboratory manager, set aside some time in your schedule to declutter consistently and honor it – even if it’s just 10 minutes at the end of each day to put away items on your bench. You can also organize an annual laboratory spring cleaning session with your laboratory members. Tidying up should be part of your daily routine!
2. Imagine Your Ideal (Research) Lifestyle
In this case, imagine an ideal day in the laboratory. Walking into the laboratory, you are greeted with the sight of a clean orderly bench. You locate the materials needed for your research easily, perform the experiments smoothly, analyse the data, and write your findings for publication. You leave the laboratory at the end of the day, satisfied that you have accomplished what you planned to do.
Now imagine the opposite. Walking into the laboratory, you are greeted with a bench so overflowing with tubes, holders, and other laboratory paraphernalia that you can barely see the surface. Slightly annoyed that there is little space to work, you then spend the better part of one hour looking for the microorganism strain or reagent you need that is hidden in the piles. As a result of the delay, you start the experiment late and everything else that comes after is behind schedule. You leave the laboratory at the end of the day, frustrated that you have to spend the weekend finishing what should have been done on the same day.
The take-away here is: tidying up can help you to create the perfect day in the laboratory. If that is not sufficient motivation for keeping the mess in check, I don’t know what is!
My bench before and after clearing up – what a difference!
3. Finish Discarding First
Over time, things pile up in laboratories. Freezer boxes with mysterious contents, stacks of Petri plates, half-used bags of tubes and bottles of reagents, stationery…the list goes on! Before organizing the items you want to keep, always start each clean-up operation with discarding as the first step so that you can assess the storage space available. Go around the laboratory and empty shelves, drawers, cold rooms, fridges, and freezers of their contents. Can’t remember what the mysterious unlabelled tube contains? Into the bin it goes. Petri plates and reagents that you didn’t use but saved “just in case the reviewers require another experiment”? If the paper has been published and you will not use them again, throw them out or give them away! If you are inclined to follow as Marie Kondo does, thank each item for its service before setting them aside. Of course, always remember to separate hazardous waste from general waste before discarding.
Caveat: PIs may suddenly request bottom-of-the-liquid-nitrogen strains or long forgotten reagents so when in doubt, always check before discarding. You don’t want to accidentally throw away a rare strain or expensive reagent!
4. Tidy by Category, Not by Location
Now that you have finished discarding, organize the items you want to keep. Laboratory items consist of several categories, namely: consumables, like tubes and plates; reagents; biological materials; tools; and stationery. These various categories are often scattered throughout the laboratory. Hence, it is more productive to execute Operation Tidy by category rather than location. Sort items into separate piles for each category. Organize consumables by type. Label storage boxes with the name of the consumables and keep them there. Use utensil holders to store stationery and small tools like forceps. Ensure that reagents and biological materials such as samples and stocks are properly labelled. Devise an easy-to-understand shorthand code for labelling samples and stocks. Maintain regularly updated stock and sample lists to keep track of the name, date, and storage location.
5. Follow the (Right) Order
The KonMariTM method suggests following a systematic order when tidying. In the laboratory, begin with uncontaminated consumables and stationery, which are items that are usually relatively easy to dispose of and organize. Starting with this easier step allows you to overcome inertia and get into the rhythm of clearing up. Then, sort the reagents and biological materials, which may need to be categorized further according to their hazardous nature. The momentum gained from organizing uncontaminated consumables and stationery will see you through the trickier task of sorting these items.
6. Ask Yourself If It Sparks Joy (Or Inspires Publications)
The KonMariTM method advocates filling personal spaces only with items that you love. However, as a scientist, you should not discard anomalous data which do not fit your hypothesis and hence, do not spark joy. On the other hand, you should discard or give away all other laboratory paraphernalia which do not spark joy (or inspire publications). Keep only items which are close to your heart or are being used for research. Yes, you can keep your favourite pen shaped like a micropipette. Aim to fill your laboratory only with items which spark joy!
The KonMariTM method was inspired by the philosophy of a minimalist lifestyle free from clutter. With some effort, you too can have a clean, organized, and tidy laboratory to make your next ground-breaking discovery. Happy tidying!