Category: productivity

Burnout and Errand Paralysis

I read a great article last month that has been getting a lot of attention online, and eventually the piece went viral. The essay is on Buzzfeed and is entitled “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” and is definitely worth the read if you are a millennial yourself, or work with or teach millennials. I found a lot of the ideas in this article resonated with me despite the fact that I’m part of Gen-X.

I think that we’ve reached a tipping point where many of us are starting to push back on the idea that exceptional optimization is a good thing. Life shouldn’t be a video game where you are constantly trying to level up; some hours in your day should be savoured for their inefficiency and slowness. In my experience, it usually takes a big wake-up call (e.g. health crisis, death of a loved one, etc.) to come to that realization.

The other point made in this article that was really interesting is that millennials have been molded to believe that hard work will pay off in the end and that they can “win” at life by constantly striving to be better. They have a general sense (and have been told) that life is a meritocracy and that if you only work hard enough to be the best that everything else will follow. As a Gen-Xer I learned pretty early on in life that the above is a false premise. We knew that we would have to work hard essentially to stay in place, but that there was no guarantee that success would be waiting on the other side of that labour. It’s a pretty cynical world-view, but it has served me well. Part of it is perhaps personality; I always plan for the worst and then can enjoy being pleasantly surprised when the worst doesn’t come to pass. My childhood was pretty free-range; lots of time to be bored (and to find ways to amuse myself) and few scheduled athletic or academic activities (my parents insisted on swimming lessons so that I wouldn’t inadvertently drown). In contrast, millennials have been subjected to a high rate of academic and athletic programming, with every moment of their lives mapped out and the message that one misstep would bring the whole house of cards crashing down.

The author of the article, Anne Helen Petersen, was recently on the Hurry Slowly podcast and the conversation between her and the host, Jocelyn K. Glei is very engaging and insightful.

I highly recommend reading the article and listening to the podcast.

Book Review: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink


This is the first book that I’ve read by Daniel Pink, but it likely won’t be the last. I read it because I’m interested in being efficient and effective using time-management techniques and the book certainly has much to offer in this area. It also contains lots of other interesting insights into human relationships with time.

The book is divided into three parts and each has its own focus. The first part focuses on daily rhythms of the human body and the need for recharging and replenishing. The second part takes aim at beginnings, midpoints, and endings and why each is important and can be influenced for positive outcomes. The final part discusses working with others and how people think about and are obsessed with time.

Something that I really liked about this book is that there is a “Time Hacker’s Handbook” at the end of each chapter that is full of hands on advice and tips that are extremely useful. You can think of it as the Cliff Notes version of each chapter. One thing that I did not like about this book, likely because I am a scientist, is that only scientific research that supports each thesis is presented. No results are presented that refute the author’s hypotheses. This comes across as rather one sided.

The writing style is easy to follow and I learned a lot of interesting things by reading this book. I know that a book is engaging when I’m constantly sharing little facts from it with my immediate family members (much to their chagrin!).

This book would be useful for people who have some time-management systems and habits already in place and are looking for improvements and ways of tweaking what you are doing to improve your productivity.



Personal Productivity: Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping

Personal Productivity: Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping

At my house we are pretty good about eating dinners at home together every night. My partner and I decided early on that we were going to make it a priority and it allows us all to chat over a meal and find out what is going on in everyone else’s lives. My kids have activities several nights a week, but thus far we have still managed to do this by eating earlier on some evenings.

Over the years we have gotten better at planning, buying food, preparing, and serving dinners at home. A great deal of the credit goes to my partner, who does the actual cooking, while I am on clean up duty. It’s a split of chores that works well for us.

On Saturday mornings we update our finances and determine how much money is available in the grocery budget for that week. Our goal is to come up with 6-7 dinners for the upcoming week. Once those are decided, we go through the recipes and our cupboards and freezers, in order to determine what needs to be purchased to make the meals. I enter the required items into an app on my iPhone called Flipp. This is an awesome app as it allows us to have a grocery list and the app shows us where each item is on sale that week. You can circle the sale items in the store flyers right in the app and this makes price matching so easy! We buy the bulk of our groceries at a store that price matches and this easily saves us several dollars each week.

Once the menu is planned for the week, we list the meals on a white board in our laundry room. This allows our kids to see what the dinners are for the week and this means that there are no surprises and a lot less whining about what’s for dinner. On the white board there is also a place for the kids to make requests for meals for the upcoming week, and a running grocery list where they can request that certain food items get purchased. If we run out of a type of food, everyone is pretty good about putting it on the list to be bought the next week.

The 6-7 meals get made the next week, but we don’t slate them into particular days. On days where someone has an activity or event in the evening we often make something easy in the slow cooker. On days where there is more time, my partner will make a more complicated meal. The dinner list also helps us to remember to defrost or marinate food the night before in preparation for the next day’s meal.

Most weeks my partner and I do the grocery shopping together. The kids usually don’t come and that is an advantage as fewer impulse items make it into the cart. We often shop on weekends, but are playing around with going during the week in order to avoid the crowds. We select our own items, but have toyed around with the idea of shopping for groceries online and picking them up at the store, but we haven’t tried that yet.

This pre-planning and purchasing cuts down on a lot of stress and has mostly gotten rid of the dreaded “What’s for dinner?” question in our house. It also saves us a huge amount of money as we are less tempted to eat delivery, take-out, fast-food, or at a restaurant during the week out of desperation.

Career Benefits of Blogging as a Faculty Member

I’ve been on Twitter and blogging since the fall of 2013. When I first started, I didn’t really have any goals other than that I wanted to help early career scientists navigate academia and I wanted to become part of some communities that I didn’t have access to in my daily life. Both of these activities have led to some unexpected positive outcomes.

I would say that the top benefit has been increased visibility of my research and my ideas to a broad community. This has involved interactions with other scientists, various academics, and members of the public. For example, a blog post from April 2015 called “The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk” led to an invitation to moderate a live Twitter chat comprised on Knowledge Mobilization officers across Canada and the U.S.

The second benefit is the honing of writing and communication skills. These skills are transferable to many other facets of my job and are valuable. I took a stab at writing an article for The Conversation Canada called “The Force of biology is strong in Star Wars” and my aim was to talk about mitochondria and cloning with a general audience. To date the article has received over 17,000 views; nothing else that I have written in my career has received so many reads.

The third benefit is that the blog allows me to share my opinions and to offer advice to early career biologists. The blog allows me to quantify some of my outreach activities and include them as part of my university service. My blog post on “Research Budgeting for Scientists” from March 2015 was re-published on the University Affairs website the next year. I’ve been interviewed for two articles for the journal Nature; one on networking in 2017 and one a few weeks ago called “Why science blogging still matters”. More recently I was invited to join the Science Borealis blog network that features Canadian bloggers who focus on various scientific fields.

I’ll point readers to this fantastic article written by several of my blogging heroes that explores this topic in more detail and talks about other impacts that science blogging can have for an individual and the broader community.


Product Review: Instant Pot

Yes, I am in fact reviewing a kitchen appliance. I am moved to do so because of how amazing said appliance is. I am not even the primary user of this particular appliance.

My partner and I have owned a couple of slow cookers in the 18 years that we’ve lived together. Our first one was a very basic model. We upgraded a few years ago to a version that had various programmable features including a time delay and different heat settings. My partner is the one who does the bulk of the dinner cooking at our house and we generally use the slow cooker several times every two weeks, especially on days that are hectic with kids’ activities when we don’t have the time to prepare and cook a meal in the late afternoon. That’s the beauty of slow cookers; you can set them up in the morning with your meal and forget about them until you are ready to eat dinner. We also use a steamer that we bought some time ago to do vegetables with many of our dinners. We save time and money (by avoiding fast food purchases); what’s not to like?

For Christmas this year, we received an Instant Pot. Prior to this I had never heard of these things, but we got excited just reading the outside of the box. We cracked it open the next day and have used it many times during the past 5 weeks. What’s great about it is that it is a steamer, slow cooker, and a pressure cooker, all in one! It’s designed really well and the instructions for use are clear. It’s also easy to clean because the pot can go on the top shelf of the dishwasher. (Cleaning our old slow cooker was the bane of my existence every time we used it…curse you ceramic pot!). I’ve never had a pressure cooker, mostly because they are terrifying and I always thought that they might explode if the lid wasn’t put on just right!

So far we have used the Instant Pot to make boiled eggs (perfectly done, no more guessing if they are soft or hard), mashed potatoes (you can keep them warm until just before you serve them; no more cold potatoes!), beef roast with potatoes and carrots (done this twice and both times the kids raved about how good it was), beef stroganoff, and broccoli cheddar soup. We’ll be able to replace two different appliances with a single one. I am impressed!

This appliance has achieved cult status and many resources are available on the internet, so there is no lack of recipes available to try out. It is a huge time saver and can really help with the dinner rush as the preparation time can take place in the morning and is often only 10 minutes or so. It’s really useful if you have multiple kids with multiple activities and if you and your partner have to divide and conquer and therefore must eat at different times.

We haven’t come close to exhausting the possibilities of what the appliance can do, but so far we have been really impressed!


Why 2017 was so hard for many of us

I’m still processing all of the revelations and feelings associated with #MeToo and the tipping point of the Harvey Weinstein exposure. It was like a dam broke in society and in me. It brought up a lot of memories that had been locked up tight that I choose to think of infrequently. I think it’s now safe to say that if you ask any women or female presenting person if they’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault the answer is going to be yes. In the past that response would have been oftentimes followed up with a disclaimer that it wasn’t that bad, but the fact that it happened at all says everything.

2017 was validating. When these things are happening to you it’s hard not to think that they only happen to you or that you are somehow bringing it on yourself through how you look or act. I refuse to think this anymore. That’s been liberating. I’m not going to accept excuses from other people to justify the poor way that someone’s behaving. I’m done with “he didn’t mean anything by it”, “that’s just the way he is”, “he’s just socially awkward”. I’m now firm in my belief that if he’s treating me that way, it won’t be the first time he’s done it, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. I’ll react accordingly.

The processing of all of this has been emotionally draining, but ultimately it’s been helpful. I was angry for most of 2017 about a lot of it, most especially that it seemed to be such a revelation for most men. Women weren’t especially shocked by the most egregious of behaviours in the same way as men. Given what’s happened to us and our sisters not much shocks us anymore. The fact that it took a movement and millions of voices in order to be heard was heartbreaking and rage inducing.

The sexually harassing and assaulting men who have been exposed are just the tip of the iceberg. We are no where near to cleaning house. Predators still lurk. Systems and policies are still in place that protect perpetrators and silence victims. It’s always been about power. Some men are worried that they may have behaved inappropriately. That worry that they feel is but a fraction of what women have had to bear for years.

I move into 2018 hopeful. There is power in speaking our stories. Power in solidarity. Power in ally ship. I think of all the amazing women I know and how fantastic and accomplished they are. I hope that the emotional burden, time, and energy that has gone into navigating dangerous shores has been lessened. I’m impressed with what we have all managed to do with anchors holding us down. I look forward to seeing what will come with self-assurance and freedom to be our full selves without fear of retaliation or shame.


Service Review: AirBnB

I will admit to being very late to the game in using AirBnB as an option for looking for housing for either personal or conference trips. The number one issue that I had was safety and security which included my personal safety during interactions with the provider and financial security when it came to payments. The second concern that I still have (in some markets) is the lack of regulatory oversight and some of the horror stories that I’ve seen in the media from both sides of the service interaction; things like bed bugs, trashed houses, inconveniencing neighbours, fraud, etc.

I used AirBnB for the first time this past summer during a sabbatical trip and a family vacation in Europe. Our first order of business was to find housing in Palma de Mallorca, Spain for 3 weeks for the research portion of our trip. We wanted housing that would house 2 adults and 2 children fairly comfortably. We ended up finding a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment in Old Town via AirBnB, but then contacted the rental office directly to make arrangements. The apartment was perfect for our needs. The only issues that we had were that the company wanted payment in full up front (the other option was to pay in cash upon arrival) and that the representative was 45 minutes late meeting me at the apartment to give me the keys. A few bumps, but once we got into the apartment it was clean, tidy, and great! Overall, a pretty positive experience and value for our money. A “family” room at an apartment hotel 15 minutes outside of town cost the same for 1 week as what we paid for the 3 weeks at our rental apartment in town.

Our next bookings were all for personal travel in various cities. First up was Paris. We found an initial booking that was great, but it was cancelled a few weeks later by the host and the reason given was that their last guest had been awful and antagonized the neighbours all around the unit and the host was being threatened with eviction if any other AirBnB rentals took place. This example speaks well to the numerous legal/financial/regulatory issues that can arise with this business model. AirBnB notified us that the funds that we had paid could be used on any other booking and we had no problem securing another apartment. The location of that booking was in a neighbourhood that had seen better days, but the unit was secure, clean, and worked for us. The only issues here were that the hosts had changed the locks that afternoon and had difficulty getting into the unit later that day (our kids found the swearing in French highly entertaining) and the bathroom was tiny and a strange configuration. The price was great, but this unit would have been a no go for anyone with mobility issues. Getting our heavy luggage up 4 flights of curving stairs was a challenge.

Next up was London. We booked a great place in a Southbank neighbourhood that was handy to transit and many of the sights around Westminster. This one was quite spacious and had a great layout. The renter’s partner had to meet us to give us the keys and this involved us trying to find each other for about 30 minutes. This apartment was noisy at night due to sirens etc. as we were located right behind a police station. It was very clean, tidy, convenient, and one of our better rentals.

Our next rental was in Edinburgh. We were able to pick up the keys on time and the location was pretty good; both for walking and for parking our rental car. This turned out to be the worst rental of the lot unfortunately as cleanliness was an issue, there was a bug problem, and they were addressing a sewer problem in the unit. They were quick to respond to our concerns, but it put us off during the rest of our stay.

Our final booking was in Dublin and it was great. A very spacious apartment that was tastefully decorated and professionally maintained. We had notified them of a late arrival due to flight delays and they were still able to have someone wait at the unit with the keys. The location was great and we enjoyed our time there. The only weirdness was some feather art on the wall that was housing a large number of tiny moths. When told about that issue (which we thought was fascinating and didn’t find distressing during our stay) they indicated that it was pretty common given the dampness of Dublin and thanked us for bringing it to their attention.

Overall, the bulk of our experiences were positive and we avoided any complete disasters or horror stories during our trip. I do have a few tips to offer based on our experiences.

1) Do your homework and due diligence before making a booking. This includes investigating the neighbourhood where the apartment is located, transportation options to get to/from the apartment (e.g. transit, taxis, airport shuttles, etc.). Be sure of the number of bedrooms, beds, bathrooms, layout, and appliances available before you commit and ensure that the booking will suit your needs.

2) Read each and every review on the AirBnB site for the booking. We did not book any places with no reviews and tried to only book places with >10 positive reviews. You will sometimes need to read between the lines of the reviews. For example, 2 reviews on the Edinburgh apartment said that issues were addressed quickly. This is the polite way of saying that there were issues and we should have picked up on that prior to our booking. We also did not book anything where the host had cancelled a prior reservation on someone else.

3) AirBnB properties come in three varieties: people’s homes that they are renting out sometimes to earn extra income (they may be on vacation or staying somewhere else in town while you rent it), timeshares or vacation homes that would otherwise sit dormant, or entrepreneurs who own several properties and rent them out all of the time. Our best experiences were with the latter group as we found the properties to be professionally cleaned and maintained. You can often tell what type of rental you are dealing with by looking at the photos; if it’s fairly spartan and staged it’s likely more professionally managed, if you can see toys, knick-knacks, and personal effects it’s likely someone’s home.

4) Key pick up is often a weird experience and if there are any problems it’s a bit of a crap-shoot as to whether they will get addressed to your satisfaction. This was the aspect of the experience that annoyed me the most. This in my opinion is the major disadvantage vs. a hotel where someone is always working the front desk, although that being said I’ve had some nightmare situations happen during hotel stays also.

Hope that these tips are helpful! Feel free to share your experiences using AirBnB in the comments!


Book Review: Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt

I ended up reading this book based on the recommendation of the author of this blog. I often find that she has excellent book recommendations that are somewhat unusual, but quite useful when applied to my work.

Often we think of strategy as something employed by warmongers and generals, but an easy way to think of strategy is predetermining what you want to accomplish and developing an effective plan and the actions/steps needed to successfully complete it. That sounds pretty much like every science project/experiment, course, and service obligation that I’ve ever taken on. I figured that this could be a useful book.

The most memorable part of this book are the awesome case studies that the author uses to illustrate his points. I learned a huge amount about the rise of Silicon Valley in California and many old-school U.S. companies. When successful, these companies started out as flexible, innovative, and agile, and later got weighed down by bureaucracy and rigidity. There are some really neat stories included in this book that I found wonderfully entertaining; they were so engrossing that I shared many of them with my husband who probably got really sick of them after a time. In today’s climate of commercializing higher education, it was interesting to read the author’s scathing view of mission and vision statements; he considers them a waste of time as they don’t contain concrete steps for how to achieve their bullet points and therefore can’t be considered a strategy.

I haven’t taken any business courses, but the case studies used in this book and the walk-throughs are very interesting. I think that most scientists would find a few useful gems here that can be applied to how they approach their work.


Good-bye to 2016

All in all, 2016 was a good year for me. During the first semester of the year I taught a course, mentored several students, and found out that my NSERC Discovery Grant was renewed. I also hit 100 followers on Twitter which I thought was pretty cool. In February I started Bullet Journaling as a system of time management and I really like it. The part that I think that I like most is that it’s a written record of everything that I was able to accomplish this past year and that the system can be modified to suit your individual needs.

The second semester during the summer saw me switch gears significantly as I was preparing for my first sabbatical in July. I attended two conferences in cities where I did my post-doc and Master’s degrees respectively, so it was a bit of a homecoming for me which was neat. At the end of June I left for Italy to attend a conference and then my family and I spent 3 weeks in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. That trip was a conscious effort to push myself out of my comfort zone, but I need not have worried as my hosts were wonderful! While I was working with a collaborator, my family explored the city and the island’s beaches. We then took a family vacation in August to Paris, England, Scotland, and Ireland which was fantastic!

The fall term found me getting a new groove and I was able to be much more proactive rather than reactive due to being on sabbatical. The biggest success that term was finally publishing a manuscript that was the result of 6 years of laboratory work. That was a huge win for me. I was happy to watch the Blue Jays in post-season baseball for the second year running; unfortunately they were eliminated by the team from Cleveland. The year rounded out with time spent with family and friends over the holidays.

I hope that your 2016 was productive and that you are looking forward to 2017!



I started a project about 2 years into my post-doc in the early months of 2010. It involved an idea that was a bit out there and I wasn’t sure that it was going to work. After discussing it with my post-doc supervisor I went for it. It was a molecular biology project and I successfully created some expression constructs and some yeast transformants. About 5 months into the project I received my faculty job offer and the strains sat in the freezer until the summer of 2011. Such is the advantage of molecular biology projects; you can put them into a deep freeze and reawaken them later. From 2011-2013 two wonderful fourth year thesis students and a talented graduate student generated the bulk of the data and protocols for the project and wrote up their results as theses. The manuscript based on these results was rejected by three different journals over the next 1.5 years. The reviews that I received certainly improved the quality of the final article, but it is hard to feel optimistic in the face of continued rejection. It is also really hard to not feel like you might be in the wrong line of work. Based on the suggestion of several reviewers, I went into the lab and collected new data using a different technique. I submitted the manuscript to a more specialized journal and was asked to do major revisions to the paper this summer. I am pleased to say that the article was accepted for publication last week.

This is the most technically challenging project that I have done as a scientist and the most professionally and personally draining publication process that I have faced to date. There were several times during the past 6 years when I almost gave up on the project and tried to evaluate if the sunk cost of time and effort already invested should be written off. It is great in this case that perseverance paid off in a publication for my lab group. I wish that there was a formula that we could use as scientists that would help us to determine when to give up on zombie projects and move on with other things. This one in particular is a great example of the project that refused to die, mostly because I was stubborn and refused to give up on it. I’m taking this one as a win.

How do you decide if and when to let a project die? Is it a conscious choice, or did the project go silently into the night never to be heard from or seen again? Do you have skeleton projects hiding in your lab’s closet?