How to Manage Laboratory Time and Tasks More Efficiently
There are only so many hours in the day and so much information that can be absorbed
In the era of lab automation and instant communication, there seems to be increasing pressure to be exponentially more productive. But there are only so many hours in the day and so much information that can be absorbed before leading to burnout. So how can lab managers help employees learn to be more efficient and to manage their time without sacrificing quality or sanity? We turned to social media to ask lab professionals for their best time-saving tips to answer this question. Here’s what they had to say.
Organize your lab life
It’s important to schedule your lab time to track overall project deadlines and goals while knowing what steps need to be taken to achieve them. Some people like to make to-do lists and others do not, but what’s important is to find a system that works for you. A few scientists who are on Twitter shared details on scheduling systems that work well for them.
Drew Doering, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, emphasizes the importance of planning experiments and knowing how long each will take by recording start and stop times. As he explains, “Map out the time each experiment will take in your day—it’s important to be realistic here—and add it to a calendar or something visual. A to-do list, a planner, and/or calendar apps can help here, but I haven’t found one that works for me, so I made my own template.” This useful template, along with detailed instructions, can be viewed on his Imgur site.1
Likewise, in a recent post, The Lab Coat Domestic blogger explains her scheduling methodology, which breaks down into both macro- and micro-scheduling categories.
For macro-scheduling, all major milestones, equipment maintenance, and reporting deadlines are added to a monthly calendar for easy visualization. On days with multiple experiments, she uses a micro-schedule to assign specific times to each experimental step and to plan coinciding work. She also goes a step further to write out all steps of experiments in advance (i.e., mini-version of standard operating procedure) to ensure that materials are ready and to refamiliarize herself with the protocol. Examples and details are provided in the blog post.2
Additionally, Nicole Paulk, instructor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, shared via Twitter some simple rules she follows to get her day and week off to a good start. Paulk advises, “Never sit down at your lab desk for any reason until you’ve set up an experiment for the day.” She also advises starting with the most difficult tasks early on to avoid a pileup at the end of the week.
It also may be ideal to set up for experiments or bench work the day before. As Reddit user “sgijc” suggests, “I’m super foggy-brained in the morning, so I set up everything the afternoon before, especially labeling in different tape colors. That way I don’t have to think too hard. I just follow the colors until the coffee kicks in.”
Use time-saving lab hacks
It’s the little things that really can shave off time from your lab day and make you more productive. Many Reddit users had some great lab hacks to share with others. While many of these tips seem obvious, the truth is that it’s easy to get in a rush and forget about the basic planning ahead and preparation required to keep lab work running smoothly.
These tips include making stock master mixes (e.g., PCR reagents and growth media), labeling reagents clearly, and restocking supplies and reagents during down periods. Some other important notes include backing up your data in multiple places, creating a naming system for data files, and using spreadsheets to create templates for everything from calculating reagent quantities in a master mix to scoring employee performance reviews. This also emphasizes the value in reaching out to online science communities (e.g., Reddit, ResearchGate, Nature’s Protocol Exchange) to exchange advice with fellow scientists on creative ways to become even more efficient in the lab.
Finally, another great tip comes from a clinical laboratory director who responded by email that a big timesaver involves the layout of the lab itself. As he explains, “If your lab is nothing but single-entry and -exit boxes, you’re going to have inefficiency because of all the wasted steps needed to go from point A to point B. A lab should be designed so that staff can flow seamlessly from area to area without having bottlenecks and following hamstercage mazes to get where they’re going.”
Invest time in training
While it initially seems like a huge time burden, it’s worth the effort to train people the right way early on. Noah Sorrelle, a graduate student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, emphasized in a Reddit comment, “Take the time to train people properly. Training [staff] more thoroughly takes time, but it saves you time in the long run.” And, he concludes, “If you don’t invest time into [staff], don’t expect any returns.”
Sorrelle also shares some methods learned during his past military experience that can be useful in training staff. For example, consider doing after-action reviews with team members. This involves reflection on the week’s activities for what went well and what needs improvement, with constructive criticism provided in a positive manner. Also, the use of repeat-backs can ensure that communication with staff is effective. As Sorrelle explains, “Having [staff members] repeat instructions back to you, in their own words, will identify any issues in understanding ahead of time, which will save one a lot of trouble and wasted time in the long run.”
There also was some discussion about the value of having a good student or other trainee to help free up time for your own work and side projects. Of course, proper training is needed in the beginning before trainees can be productive, which includes teaching them about time-management strategies, too.
As Paris Grey, a research coordinator at the University of Florida, recalls, “Teaching time management is as much for the mentor as it is for the researchers they guide. I don’t think that’s obvious to new supervisors. I interviewed a new PI recently who told me that their philosophy is that ‘graduate students should figure out time management on their own,’ yet the PI was puzzled about why their grad students weren’t meeting the benchmarks set by their grad committee.”
She continues, “During the conversation, I shared several thoughts, including that there is a huge difference between micromanaging a grad student’s time—something an advisor should never do—and offering suggestions, practical advice, and having discussions about what productivity barriers the student is struggling with and giving specific strategies on overcoming them.”
One such strategy that Reddit user “possiblysmart” recommends is not to do too much too fast, saying, “There’s no need to burn out in the first month. Set experimental goals for each week and complete them. Sometimes it can be to generate data, sometimes it can be to learn a new technique, but setting realistic goals is important.”
There also are a number of resources available that can help trainees learn more about managing time and becoming more independent. For example, Grey is co-author of both the website UndergradintheLab.com and the book Getting In: The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience, which provide regular pro tips on how to plan for and organize research at the bench.3
Avoid time wasters
We are bombarded with distractions throughout the day that can waste a lot of time, from social-media browsing to break-room gossip. While it’s important to take breaks and form collegial relationships with co-workers, these activities should be built into your daily schedule separate from time specifically allocated to work functions. A number of productivity methods (e.g., the Pomodoro Technique) can be adopted to increase focus and attention through alternating intervals of work and breaks, along with taking steps to minimize distractions during the work sessions.4
Grey further advises, “Although you won’t be able to do it every minute of every lab day, try to reserve your research time for the tasks that you cannot do if you literally weren’t in the lab. Of course, attending seminars, bonding with lab mates, and staying on top of the literature is important, but using your core research time to work at the bench will make you more efficient and pave the way for you to have your life outside the lab.”
If feasible, it also may be useful to adjust your schedule by coming in earlier or staying later. That way, you can take advantage of when you are naturally most productive in the day and avoid tripping over people during the busiest times in the lab. Additionally, if there’s the option, periodically working from home may help managers get caught up on administrative tasks without the hassle of unnecessary workplace distractions.
In the end, as Reddit user “OolongandJasmineMLS” points out, one of the biggest time wasters can be taking on too much work. As this scientist explains, “Trying to do too much is a big source of error in the clinical lab. There have been serious efficiency pressures at the bench for years. Rushing is no good if you drop the tube and need a redraw, send an erroneous result that ends on an amended report and a chat with your supervisor, or stick yourself and spend good time cooling your heels with occupational health.”
1. Doering, D. My Pages Planner. Retrieved from https://imgur.com/a/BL8i6.
2. Time Management. (2017). The Lab Coat Domestic. Retrieved from https://thelabcoatdomestic.blogspot.com/2017/09/timemanagement.html.
3. Oppenheimer, D. and Grey, P. (2015). Getting In: The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience. http://amzn.to/1Pdeqbr .
4. Henry, A. (2014). Productivity 101: A Primer to the Pomodoro Technique. Lifehacker. Retrieved from https://lifehacker.com/productivity-101-a-primer-to-the-pomodoro-technique-1598992730.