Tag: time management

Project Management for Scientists

project management notesToday’s topic in my group lab meeting is project management. It took me a long time as a scientist to believe that research projects could actually be managed. I think that I felt this way given the uncertain nature of scientific research; you never know if an experiment will actually work and you often can’t predict in which direction the research will go next. I’ve always been an organized person and it turns out that managing a research project isn’t all that different from other projects that you do in your day to day life such as go grocery shopping, clean out the garage, and plant a vegetable garden. Once I started thinking about science in the same way it’s like a light bulb went on.

I don’t recall ever having explicit conversations with my research mentors and supervisors about project management. That may be because I was fairly productive and am a planner by nature, but these are skills that don’t naturally come to everyone and that can be learned and improved over time. As a purely ridiculous example, I explicitly tell students that they should do something else with their time while PCR is running or they are incubating a sample for an hour. I’d like to think that they know this, but I have heard stories from colleagues, of students who will literally sit there for the duration of the incubation thereby wasting precious time that they could have used doing anything else. It’s like the science equivalent of watching paint dry.

Here are some thoughts on how I approach project management in laboratory science:

1) My first step is to define the project clearly and to determine what success looks like. If you skip this step you’ll never know when the project is done, nor will you know if you did it well. You need to identify the full scope of the work, what resources you’ll need (reagents, people, literature, etc.), and the time that you have available to do it in. Thinking about these limitations up front will decrease the amount of frustration that you and others experience later. At the same time, there is room for flexibility, which I will talk about later.

2) My next step is to think about the major milestones that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For even the most basic science experiment this will include things like generation of hypotheses and predictions, experimental design, ordering of reagents, allocation of people, doing the experiments, data collection and analyses, data presentation and communication (i.e. making figures, tables, diagrams, etc.), and generating a manuscript, poster, or talk to communicate your findings. That’s a lot of stuff to complete in order to successfully finish your project! One of the major things that I struggle with is maintaining an interest in projects that span several years of work; I often get bored part way through and struggle with staying motivated to finish.

3) Up next is thinking about the flow of tasks and their relationships to one another in your project. I like to think of the major milestones in a project as parts of a puzzle that need to be put together. When I build puzzles, I always start with the edge pieces first, and then work my way in; this means that the connection of some pieces requires the presence of other pieces first. With your project you want to determine whether some of your milestones are interconnected and have to happen sequentially, or whether some of your milestones are independent and could be worked on in parallel at the same time. For example, if you wanted to clone a particular gene in your critter of interest, you would first want to obtain the DNA sequence from a molecular database, you’d then design and order gene specific primers, you’d then perform PCR with your primers, purify your amplified DNA via gel electrophoresis and a gel extraction kit, clone your DNA product into a plasmid, and sequence the plasmid to ensure that the DNA sequence matched the one in the database. These tasks are sequential and one needs to happen before you move on to the next. Other projects have milestones that could be completed at the same time because one doesn’t depend on the completion of the other. This is also the time to identify what could go wrong. Where might your project go off the rails? Can you come up with a back-up plan to get around the problem should it arise? Can you plan ahead to avoid the problem? Can you ask for help?

4) Now you need to break your project milestones into smaller mini-projects that contain a small number of discrete steps. Ideally, you’d aim to complete a few of the small tasks every day and one of the mini-projects each week in the lab. This will help to keep you motivated as you’ll be able to measure your progress on the project and you will build up lots of little wins and that will keep your mental and emotional state positive.

5) The final step is putting together a timeline for completion. I like to set a deadline that I think is realistic, but I usually add several extra weeks and expect that something will go wrong during the course of the project. I then work backwards from that date when planning my time. I schedule in my major project milestones, my mini-projects, and my smaller tasks at a level of detail that I’m comfortable with. Some projects are tricky and it will be difficult to easily identify all of the mini-projects and small tasks up front. Do your best and don’t get off target because that can lead to project creep where the scope of the project balloons out and doesn’t resemble the scope of what you originally set out to do. You need to be flexible because plans can sometimes change mid-project, but head back up to what you defined in Step 1 if you feel that your project is getting out of control. You’ll often find that you reimagined the scope of the project without really thinking things through because you got excited by a neat result or finding. Think extra hard about whether you really want to commit to expanding the scope or redefining the success of your project before you leap in! That being said, there will be times when you need to retool your plans and timeline due to the unpredictability of lab research, but hopefully because you’ve identified the possible trouble spots in advance (Step 3) this will be minimal.

6) Execute your project management plan. Enter specific tasks and mini-projects in your daily and weekly calendar and set deadlines for your project milestones.

Some great resources:

If you need help with bigger project management concepts, Melanie Nelson’s blog Beyond Managing is great!

If you find that scheduling, prioritizing, and keeping up with your to-do list is a challenge, I recommend reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” . It will change your life – I kid you not!

What tips and resources do you give to your trainees in order to help them manage their research projects?

Review of the iPad App Fantastical

I’ve had an iPad for several years and have talked before about how I use it in my day to day work as a professor and some of the applications (apps) that I prefer.

In that blog post from last November, I was using the app Week Cal as my calendar of choice. A few months ago there was a software update and a giant black bar of doom started appearing across the screen in the app. At first it was merely annoying and I figured that the next update would solve the problem. Nope. I contacted the company and was told that it was happening because I was using an iPhone app on an iPad. This was stated matter of factly and it was very clear that there was no motivation or desire to fix this particular issue. Based on that interaction I started my search for a new calendar app for iPad.

Originally my goal was to get something for free that would get the job done because I like a good deal. The Apple calendar app is o.k., but I find that entering things in is a bit clunky. I also used an app called Sunrise for a few weeks which was a step up from Apple’s offering, but I still wasn’t really happy. A few quick searches of some of my favourite productivity blogs (Asian Efficiency , LifeHacker yielded an interesting possibility. Many readers on those two sites recommended an app called Fantastical.

First of all I loved the name FastastiCAL because I am all about horrible puns and plays on words. There are two major advantages to this app based on my usage of it for ~2 weeks. The first is the layout of the calendar. The top half of the screen shows you a weekly view and by pulling down on this panel you can expand it to fill the screen. The bottom half is filled by two panels; the one of the left shows you a rolling log of the events that you have coming up or recently completed, and the right panel is a monthly view. The second major advantage is that entering events is a breeze because you can type them in sentence form and have the event appear in your calendar. For example, if I typed in “Meet Carla for lunch at McDonald’s on Sept. 29” an appointment with Carla from 12-1 p.m. at McDonald’s would appear on my calendar for Sept. 29th. This saves me a ton of time and also makes entering recurring appointments very simple. An added bonus that I really appreciate is that you can move around in your calendar when adding events so you can avoid double booking yourself, or can look up what you already have planned for a particular day. There is also the ability to add events to your calendar verbally, but I haven’t tried that option yet.

One caveat is that I don’t use Outlook for my calendar scheduling, so I’m not sure if the app is compatible with that program. I do believe that it interfaces with Google though.

The other drawback is that the app isn’t cheap compared to other calendars that are free or a few dollars to purchase, however based on my use of the app over the past few weeks it’s been worth every penny for me. Fantastical also comes for iPhone and I may look at putting it on that device in the upcoming weeks.

Book Review: Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before book

This book is a fascinating exploration of habits and how one uses them for change and potentially improvement of our lives. There are some pretty interesting insights on offer here in terms of what the author calls “the four tendencies” that could be used to describe how a person deals with outer expectations (those in the environment) and inner expectations (the ones we have for ourselves). This part of the book was really interesting to me as I had no trouble identifying my tendency and the tendencies of some of the people I work and live with. This has given me a lot to think about in terms of managing my lab trainees and my approach to interpersonal relationships with my family, friends, and colleagues. I’m not sure I buy into the idea completely, but it’s a different way of thinking about personality and motivation than anything that I’ve come across before. She also talks a fair bit about “distinctions” which are personal preferences that are hardwired by biology or previous experience (e.g. early risers vs. night owls).

She offers some strategies on how you might try to form and maintain a particular habit. These including monitoring (e.g. using a Fitbit or the app MyFitnessPal to form health habits), scheduling (i.e. setting aside a particular time for a habit), accountability (e.g. telling someone about your habit goals). She talks about getting started, dealing with set-backs or “falling off the wagon”, being struck by “lightning bolts” that cause you to start or give up a habit (e.g. quitting drinking if you find out you’re pregnant), and abstaining vs. moderation in the formation of habits. She describes the various ways that we sabotage ourselves with regards to habits by making things too convenient or inconvenient and failing to set safeguards and distractions from temptation. The section on creating loopholes that allow us to make excuses was especially amusing and insightful. She argues that rewards are not particularly effective because setting a finish line might not yield the positive outcome we expect and that small little treats might be better (this reminded me of training a dog). One of the neatest strategies is pairing where you pair something you don’t like to do with something that you do. A great example was forcing yourself to exercise on the treadmill by pairing it with watching a favourite show or listening to a podcast. The constant theme throughout the book was that each person is different and that what works for one person won’t work for someone else.

This book will be interesting to someone looking to start positive habits or stop negative habits. This might be particularly relevant now for academics as September is just around the corner and heralds in a new beginning.

Book Review: I Know How She Does It, Laura Vanderkam, 2015

I’m a regular reader of Laura’s blog and have read several of her other books and was therefore looking forward to reading her newest book I Know How She Does It .

The book is essentially an analysis of time logs of successful women and a discussion of successful strategies for living a fulfilling life. Time tracking is a very effective way of seeing where your time goes; during the day you record what you did with your time in 30 minute blocks. Laura defined successful women as those who earned over $100,000/year and had at least one child under 18 living at home with them. The book is therefore ideally geared towards women in this particular situation, but several of the insights are applicable to everyone. We are definitely talking about first-world problems here.

The target audience for this book is women like me who are driven in their careers and who also have a family life. Many of us want “to have it all” and are frustrated by the old scripts that tell us that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”, that you can be a good mother or a good employee, but not both, or that you should maintain strict separation between home and work life if you want to succeed. These narratives aren’t helpful and perhaps aren’t really true. They also induce a lot of guilt in women that doesn’t seem to be a hang-up that men have.

One of the take away messages from reading Laura’s book that I liked was that instead of talking about work-life balance or work-life blend, Laura is using the metaphor of a mosaic for how you spend your time. I really like this way of thinking about time because it allows you to see that fitting in the pieces of your life is like solving a puzzle, but it is a puzzle that is flexible and allows you to come up with your own final image and way of fitting the tiles of your life together. I think that these ideas of flexibility and autonomy are really key realizations to take away from this book. Many women I think get stuck in a false narrative that work happens from 9-5 p.m. and that the rest of your life has to be squeezed into the margins. This really isn’t sustainable or realistic, especially if you are a knowledge worker. She also spends some time debunking the myth that going part-time or “leaning out” always relieves these pressures.

Another thing that was fascinating about the book was that you get to see how other successful women are spending their time. Looking at other women’s time logs is rather voyeuristic, but can lead to the generation of new ideas or strategies to try out in your own life. I also like Laura’s approach to thinking about time on the scale of 168 hours (1 week) as opposed to getting bogged down in the daily crunch. While particular days may be work heavy, others are full of time spent with family; if we were only to look at things on a daily basis we would have a very skewed view of reality. We live in a society that brags about overwork and sees it as a badge of honour, but the average hours worked per week by the women in Laura’s sample was 35.

In Chapter 3 Laura discusses some strategies that successful women use in order to live full lives. These include split shifts, telecommuting, planning based on weeks not days, and retooling weekends. While these are ideas that have been bandied about before, Laura provides examples of how real women use each of these strategies effectively to make their lives easier.

Chapter 4 is focused on strategies that can be used to consciously design a better work life. These include obvious things like planning ahead, focusing on real work with maximal payoffs rather than merely keeping active with “busy work”, surrounding yourself with good people, and building in slack to your schedule. Laura also recognizes that some workplaces are still suck in the mentality that if a worker is burning the midnight oil then they must be a loyal, committed, hard worker. In my experience this often means that the worker doesn’t manage their time or projects effectively and has been slacking off during some of their work hours by using social media, web surfing, or playing MineSweeper. She makes the argument to be “strategically seen” at work given these preconceived notions of what it means to be a hard worker (i.e. face time is all important).

In Chapter 5, Laura offers some tips on the home front, with a focus on parenting and encouragement to re-examine mornings, evenings, family meals, and to take time to play and really be present when you are spending time with your kids. The section on outsourcing was incredibly funny to read. Several women in the study had hired housekeeping services, but then would frantically pre-clean before the cleaning crew arrived. She also makes the important point that child-care is not one size fits all and that what works for your co-workers may not work for your situation.

Often the thing that falls by the wayside during this work/life two step is self-care. Encouragingly, Laura found that during the course of a week, most women were getting enough sleep and were pretty good about exercising. Sometimes finding “extra” time is all about really examining how you are currently spending your 168 hours per week. Blinding browsing Pinterest or checking email represents “found time” that you could get back if you became more conscious of these automatic habits that have no real payoff.

Chapter 9 is all about mastering the tiles of the mosaic and offers recommendations like learning to better estimate how long things will actually take you to do, using travel time, multitasking when possible, taking advantage of unexpected free time, and taking a step back every once and a while to look at the whole picture.

There is a lot of creativity on display here in the tips and tricks that have been gleaned from other women’s schedules and there are a lot of practical things for you to try in your own work/family/personal life. I especially liked Laura’s focus on flexibility, breaking outdated rules and ways of thinking about work and home life, and the metaphor of the mosaic. The book will be most useful and will speak to working moms with children at home, but is a valuable read for anyone looking to fit all of the pieces of their life together in a format that makes them happy and fulfilled.

Book Review: Getting Things Done, David Allen, 2015 Edition

I first stumbled across an earlier version of this book while looking for ways to become more productive and efficient in my personal and professional lives. I have always been a Type A personality and a compulsive list maker which had served me well during my early education and undergrad degree. Once I transitioned to graduate school and a post-doc the number of projects that I had on the go simultaneously got to be a bit overwhelming. My primary frustration is that I would make awesome lists of things to do, and I would get a lot of the things on these lists completed. But at the end of everyday there would be several tasks that would keep getting punted onto the list for the next day. For some tasks that I frankly didn’t want to do, the shunting of particular tasks from one day to the next could go on for weeks. This was incredibly frustrating, but I couldn’t readily identify what wasn’t working.

When I read the first edition of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” it was an epiphany! The book really spoke to me and was directly responsible for improving my productivity several fold by implementing his methodology. What is described in the book isn’t rocket science and is in fact quite simple, but the way that it is laid out communicates the ideas very effectively. The other thing that I liked about the approach in the book is that you don’t have to do everything all at once and you can ease into this way of doing things. There are several tips throughout the book that will save you huge amounts of time if implemented. I’ve probably read the first edition of David’s book 3 or 4 times and I always pick up something new to try when I do.

I was therefore excited to check out the revised 2015 edition of this book given how helpful it has been to me in the past. A lot of the material is not new, but has been updated for today’s world. For example, in the original book personal organizing devices like the Palm Pilot were big sellers and email was just starting to transition from being cool and new to overwhelming. Although David doesn’t make explicit recommendations about personal tech (e.g. iPad, Blackberry, vs. Android platforms and apps), he does spend some time talking about organization and workflow in our electronic era which is helpful. There is also a new chapter on Cognitive Science which is interesting and backs up why David’s approach is so helpful for many people.

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is by far the most useful and practical productivity book that I have ever read and was life changing for me. If you have not read the book and are interested in trying out his methodology I would recommend purchasing the 2015 edition. You’ll be very glad that you did!