Tag: organizing

Making bad choices? Blame decision fatigue!

I’ve finally come to realize that I make my best decisions in the morning and my worst decisions in the afternoon or evening. The reason for this is a phenomenon called decision fatigue . It’s the idea that the more decisions that you make during the day, your ability to make good quality decisions rapidly decreases as the day wears on. I used to think that living in a world with a myriad of choices available was a fantastic opportunity, but sometimes it is the availability of the huge number of options in our lives that can be overwhelming. I think that these ideas can feed into procrastination, especially when there are so many choices competing for our attention. I also wonder if this is partly driving why many of my students are so unclear about their next steps in education, life, and career. The more decisions that we have to make, the harder those decisions become.

So what can you do about decision fatigue and/or avoid it? This article at the Huffington Post provides some simple steps. I think that the best suggestion is to make important decisions in the morning when you are still fresh and have a large supply of willpower. The other hint that I think is helpful is to limit yourself to three options only and make a decision based on those. I’ll often do this when buying lab equipment. I’ll first think about the features that the item really has to have and only look at options that satisfy these criteria. This makes it easier to make decisions and feel good about them and avoids the trap of second guessing my decisions after I’ve made them.

The negative consequences of decision fatigue can be high. Maybe it’s starting a research project that ends up being a time, money, and resources sink. Sometimes it’s a bad equipment purchase. It could involve sending your manuscript to an inappropriate journal. Bad decisions are costly for a number of reasons; I do my best to avoid them by consciously choosing to make important decisions about work when I first arrive at work. A fresh brain is a brain that’s capable of making better choices.

Office supplies and technologies that can improve faculty productivity

Below is a list of office supplies and technologies that I find useful in my job as a faculty member.

1) Coloured file folders

We once dreamed about a world where technology would make it possible to go completely paperless. We aren’t there yet and I strongly doubt that we ever really will be. I’ve found it helpful to organize projects into coloured file folders that relate to one particular role of my job as a faculty member. Anything related to administration is burgundy (e.g. service, financials, etc.), teaching is violet (e.g. course syllabi, student assignments, tests, etc.), blue is research (e.g. lab supplies, vendor catalogues, grant applications, etc.), and teal is current projects (e.g. manuscript writing, lab experiments, etc.). I find that this colour coding helps to keep me organized.

2) Post-it Notes

The glue used in post-it notes was a failed experiment which as a scientist I think is hilarious and is a good commentary on the importance of basic research and making mistakes while doing science. I use post-its for a wide variety of reasons and in a multitude of colours. For the past several months I’ve been using 3” x 3” post-its on my personal Kanban board in my office and I hope to write a future blog post on that topic. I also use yellow lined larger post-its for capturing lists or ideas that I need to flesh out in more detail.

3) Label maker

I have already waxed poetic about the label maker in a previous post . It is one of the greatest human inventions ever. Enough said.

4) Writing implements (a.k.a. pens)

I am a pen snob and am very particular about them. About a year ago I discovered the Pentel EnerGel Metal Tip 0.7 mm ball pen in black . No leaking, no smudging, quick drying, smooth…this pen has it all. “Borrow” my pens at your own peril!

5) Notebooks

I prefer to use the Hilroy 80 page 1 subject lined notebooks. Many of my colleagues use bound notebooks (e.g. Moleskine), but I write in my notebooks and then rip out the pages so these don’t work for me.

6) iPad

I use my iPad in my daily work as my calendar, task manager, timer, etc. and have previously written a post on several apps that I find useful .

7) Generic office supplies

I’ve got a stapler, staple remover, paperclips, scotch tape, scissors, and a calculator that I use regularly in a desk drawer. I also purchased a letter opener and the number of paper cuts that I receive has dropped exponentially. I also find that the “sign here” sticky flags have proven very useful for one up approval of grant applications, financial reconciliations, and various other documents that need approvals from my departmental Chair and Dean.

8) External hard drive

I back up my laptop regularly in case my computer decides to go nuclear or on the small chance that my computer gets stolen. I’ll likely migrate to a cloud back-up soon, but if the laptop is in my office then the external drive comes home with me and vice versa.

None of these items is particularly ground breaking or earth shattering, but I find that when used together in my everyday work activities they save me a lot of time and vastly increase my productivity.

Care to share the office supplies that you find useful as a professor?

Tips for designing experiments

One guarantee of being a scientist is that you perform many experiments in your career that do not work. I always warn trainees just joining my lab that this will happen and that they should expect it. This is an issue that I discuss in particular with undergraduate students because often the only lab experience they have is through undergrad labs run as part of a course and those experiments are designed to work and have already undergone extensive troubleshooting. I make sure to tell my students that they will run many failed experiments and that this is a normal part of doing science and is a cornerstone of the scientific method. I tell them that so far in my career I’ve only had a few experiments that worked out perfectly the first time and that a failed experiment can happen for reasons other than their abilities or talent for doing science.

That being said, there are things that you can do to decrease the chances that an experiment will fail right out of the gate. I offer some tips below:

1) The first thing that I suggest to students is that they do extensive reading of the literature and established protocols related to their experiment before starting to design it. I’ve heard the phase “one hour in the library can save you one month in the lab” and I absolutely believe it! It’s really important to understand the rationale behind a particular protocol and the nuts and bolts of why you are doing each step. In the days of commercial kits I think that many people forget this crucial step and it often causes issues later.

2) Make sure that you are including all reasonably possible positive and negative controls as part of your experiment. From talking with several of my colleagues recently it has become clear that many undergraduate and graduate students have not had explicit training in how to determine what the appropriate controls should be for an experiment or are simply not including them. By including controls in your experiment you allow yourself the capability of narrowing down where problems cropped up in your experiments. When an experiment fails, this step can save you a massive amount of time when it comes to troubleshooting and determining what went wrong. The presence of control and experimental groups also ensures that you will be able to conduct statistical analyses of your data in an attempt to demonstrate whether your results are significant.

3) Write up an extremely detailed step by step protocol for your experiment. Try to think about what might go wrong and where key steps are in the protocol. Attempt to troubleshoot the experiment before you even do it. The plans for your experiment should be written in your lab notebook and not on paper towels, scrap pieces of paper, etc. This will ensure that your experiment will be reproducible and will help you to identify potential issues before you get rolling. If someone in the lab has done the experiment or protocol before, go and talk to them. They may have tips or tricks that are not explicitly written down that are valuable. Write out the protocol in your own words with as much detail as you can. I tell my students that if they needed to perform the experiment without thinking about the steps, the protocol should be detailed enough that they could do this.

4) Ensure that all of the materials and reagents that you need for your experiment are available and ready to go before you start the experiment. There is nothing worse than getting part way through a long protocol only to realize that you’ve run out of Tris buffer and have to order more in from the supplier. Complete any prior steps that are needed before starting the experiment. Do you need to culture cells, wrangle critters, grow plants, etc.?

5) Conduct a small trial run of your experiment. Starting things off with a pilot experiment allows you to save money, time, and can allow you to discover problems with the design of your experiment before you fully commit large amounts of resources to it.

Designing good experiments is an art form that requires years of practice in order to get better at it. I am still working on designing the perfect experiment, but I have certainly improved this skill by extensive practice over the years. Due to the challenge of designing an effective experiment it is truly amazing when an experiment works beautifully on the first attempt. This is one of the eureka moments that scientists live for!

Is your academic office a pit of despair?

When I started this job a huge perk was that I finally got my own office. While there are often limitations on what you can physically do to your office, I spent a bit of time thinking about my office set-up in an attempt to make it a pleasant place to work in so that I could be as efficient and productive as possible. Given how much time we faculty members spend in our offices I think that this is a good long term investment and is worth thinking about. My office is still a work in progress, but recently several colleagues have commented on how dynamic my office space is compared to theirs. I’m taking this as a compliment and as a sign that I must be doing something right!

Without further ado here are some suggestions on how to make your office more comfortable and less sterile:

Wall surfaces: A new coat of paint can do wonders, but that isn’t always possible. The next best thing is to hide scuffs and holes as best you can. I’ve done this by hanging up a small bulletin board, a white dry-ease board, an awesome poster of a photosynthetic sea slug, my academic degrees, and a cool frog calendar.

Floor: My office has generic brown/grey carpet that’s in great shape. It gets vacuumed regularly by the custodial staff, so I’m happy. I added a plastic runner under my desk chair so that I can wheel around freely.

Lighting: I’m very lucky that my office has a huge window and receives a lot of light. I also have the ability to open parts of the window which is awesome. One handy tip is that it is a good idea to set your computer monitor up perpendicularly to the window in order to avoid constant glare. If you don’t have a window in your office and don’t do well with fluorescent lighting it’s worth the investment to get a task lamp or two to avoid headaches.

Furniture: I inherited serviceable furniture with my office that included two tall bookshelves, a gigantic horizontal filing cabinet, an L-shaped desk, a small under-desk filing cabinet, and a blue fabric task chair on wheels. Most universities have a storage depot for used furniture that you can raid, or if you are negotiating a new position see if you can get some money to purchase office furniture. Two years into my job I decided to spend some of my professional funds on a more supportive office chair; it’s been money well spent given the amount of time I spend seated in my office.

Living Things: Plants look awesome, add life to an office, and require very little upkeep. Several of my colleagues have aquariums in their offices that are pretty neat.

Computer set-up: Take a little time to learn about ergonomics; your wrists and back will thank you years later. I use a laptop with a docking station which makes coming and going considerably easier. If you use a laptop invest in a separate large monitor in order to prevent neck strain and hunched shoulder syndrome. I switched to a dual screen display this morning; it’s been a revelation!

Personal items: Bring in and display items that make you happy and that are useful. I display photos of my kids, some colleagues have Tassimo or Keurig coffee machines in their offices. Maybe your office gets cold and it would be a good idea to bring in a big sweater so that you can be comfortable.

My office is a work in progress and I’m continually looking for ways to liven the space up a bit.

How have you made your office space your own?

(Bonus points if you caught “The Princess Bride” reference in the title of this post!)