Tag: work flow

DoctorAl Digest

Here’s a list of links that I’ve found interesting this week:

  1. Octopi are cool creatures. A lovely video of new species looking for a name (h/t Malcolm M. Campbell)
  2. Women in Science calling out the whole Tim Hunt debacle using the cheeky #distractinglysexy hashtag on Twitter.
  3. A thoughtful post on making decisions over at the Beyond Managing Blog.
  4. I’m currently reading the book “I Know How She Does It” by Laura Vanderkam. Her website has focussed on associated issues of the work/life mosaic for women the past few weeks.
  5. Jacquelyn Gill’s tweets this week (@JacquelynGill) on her field work have been fascinating!
  6. Tanya Golash-Boza pushing back against the workaholic culture of academia with her refreshing post “Summer Hours: Enjoy your summer and be productive too!”
  7. The importance of “Finding new definitions for career success” over at Tenure, She Wrote.
  8. A reminder that some academic departments are toxic over at the Conditionally Accepted blog
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Open vs. Closed Office Door

Interruptions are the bane of my existence. When I’m in the zone working on something it is very disruptive to be interrupted. As I do most of my work in my office on campus and my office is located directly across from the departmental office, there are plenty of sources of interruption throughout any given day. This can include people who pop by to specifically see me, loud conversations or noises in the hallway, and the persistent buzz of the door at the end of the hall every time someone uses their access card to open it.

During my first several years as a professor I had an open door policy. I didn’t have a great sense of the culture in my department yet and I felt that being seen as more available would be a good idea. This was a great decision as it allowed me to get to know my colleagues and made me accessible to students. Generally speaking, I would say that in my department most of my colleagues leave their doors slightly open if they are in their office working.

A few years into my position, I realized that I was losing quite a bit of time to interruptions. Some of these were a consequence of the location of my office. If the departmental office staff were on lunch or when the office was closed I would sometimes have to sign for deliveries or field inquiries from students or visitors. These interruptions didn’t take up much time, but they definitely disrupted my work flow. I also noticed that some of my lab trainees would pop by with quick questions that they could have solved themselves and realized that perhaps I’d made myself a little too readily available.

Since April of this year I have started an experiment. I’ve purposely closed my office door when I am completing a task that requires a high degree of concentration, and only open it when an interruption would not be detrimental. Part way through the past academic year I also booked weekly appointments with each of my trainees so that they knew that they would have scheduled one-on-one time with me when they would have my full attention. Both of these decisions have greatly reduced the number of interruptions during the course of a day and I feel that I am more focused and productive while at work. The only drawback to this approach so far is that several of my colleagues have noticed that I’m coming in to work, but that I’m closing my door and have commented on it (not in a judgemental way, but because they have noticed a change in my behaviour).

It’s a pretty tough balance between being accessible and friendly vs. productive and cloistered. I think that this is something that a lot of faculty members struggle with and I think is very dependent on your departmental culture. I’d be interested to hear how others approach this decision. Do you have a personal policy about open vs. closed office doors?

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.

Making word processing easier

When I was in Grade 8 my parents bought our first computer. It was a Tandy 1000 and it was awesome. My brother and I logged countless hours playing computer games like King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Hero’s Quest published by Sierra . We stayed away from Leisure Suit Larry because it was wildly inappropriate for kids. We also had a dot matrix printer hooked up to the computer that could be used with a very basic word processor and I used it a few times to do school assignments.

One skill that has proved very useful to me in my job as a scientist is the ability to type. I learned how to type in Grade 10 by taking a class for an entire semester. It is probably the most boring class that I have ever taken in my life, but it’s a skill that I use every day and it saves me tonnes of time. I learned to type on an electric typewriter and was pretty accurate and speedy; I rarely used the correction paper that we had to buy for class. I’m pretty sure that they don’t teaching typing in grade or high school anymore, perhaps assuming that kids these days use their computers so much that they pick up typing on their own. However, my own children who are 12 and 8 type using two fingers and appear mystified by the QWERTY keyboard. A few weeks ago there was a discussion on several blogs about whether scientists still left two spaces after periods at the end of sentences when they typed. It took me a while to break that particular habit since that is how I first learned to type sentences.

Since entering my undergraduate degree I’ve used several iterations of Microsoft Word as my word processing program. I was thrown quite a bit by the 2010 update and have recently switched over to the 2013 version. I’ve often wondered how other scientists do their word processing, since I know that some of my colleagues prefer to use LaTeX . Over the years I’ve picked up several tips and tricks for using Word, but I consider my skills to be merely adequate and I know that I don’t use the program to its full capacity or usefulness. I figure that improving my MS Word skills would be a good investment as it could serve to save me lots of time and improve my efficiency at doing certain aspects of my job. With that in mind I took out the book “Office 2013 (the missing manual)” from my local public library. I’ve only read up to page 83, but it’s been illuminating to say the least!

Some highlights so far:

1) I’ve known for years that lots of other people regularly use keyboard shortcuts. I often use Ctrl + C to copy, Ctrl + P to paste, and Ctrl + A to select an entire document. This book explained shortcuts for bolding and italicizing text that should have been obvious to me before now; I’d been using my mouse and clicking on buttons to accomplish the same thing which is pretty clunky and often interrupted my flow of writing.

2) The start pane in Word 2013 was a bit disorienting at first. I’ve learned how to pin documents to the top of the list of recently used documents that will save me the time that I previously spent pulling them up from whatever folder I’d previously saved them in.

3) I recently switched to a dual monitor set-up in my office which was pretty amazing. Finally figuring out how to split the screen or show documents side by side has been mind-blowing and frankly is something that I should have figured out years ago.

4) I used to select text by highlighting it with my mouse and clicking and dragging the cursor. Evidently you can select words, paragraphs, or sections with a couple clicks of the mouse. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.

This book has been amazing so far and I look forward to the other gems of knowledge that I’ll pick up from it. It’s also been a very effective ego check and has served to highlight the fact that spending a bit of time figuring out how to really use a piece of software is time well spent.

What tricks have you picked up in the word processing programs that you use in your day to day work as a scientist? Feel free to share in the comments!

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!)

How I Use my iPad as an Academic Scientist

I received my first iPad as a Christmas present several years ago from my partner. Prior to that I had purchased an iPod and that was the first Apple device that I owned. I still use a PC laptop as my primary computing device at work, but I have integrated my iPad into my daily work flow. I am now on my second iPad (a first generation iPad Air). I thought that it might be interesting to other academics if I described how I use my iPad at work. Below I describe three of the apps that I use every day and how they have led to increases in my productivity as a scientist.

Week Cal

I used to use a paper calendar and was frustrated when appointments changed or got cancelled and entering repeating appointments was a pain. During the transition to an electronic calendar I maintained a paper and an electronic calendar for a few months because I was paranoid that the iCloud would eat my data. This never happened and I love the convenience of using an electronic calendar. I find that I prefer the Week Cal display and set-up compared to the Apple Calendar App. I found having an electronic calendar extremely useful when I was recently preparing my tenure file; it was easy to go back in time and look at the past 3 years of my life. I only use my calendar for appointments (i.e. I physically have to be somewhere at a certain time and place).

OmniFocus

Academics are busy people and we have to keep a lot of balls up in the air at the same time. I am a typical type-A personality and prior to having my iPad I kept a notebook with a master to-do list and notes on each of the many projects that I had on the go. It was all there, but it wasn’t very organized or efficient. As a compulsive list maker I was looking for a program that was flexible and could deal with the complexities of my varied projects. Several years ago I read the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen and it was a life changer. OmniFocus has had a similar positive impact on my productivity. The Omni company has recently released version 2 of the app for iPad. The program is very expensive for an app, but it has been worth every penny for me. The program also has a steep learning curve, but once you figure it out it is awesome!

Clock

The Clock app comes as a default app on the iPad and I use it in a few ways. When I’m doing a task for the first time, but I know that it’s a repeating task that I’ll need to do again in the future, I use the Stopwatch feature to determine how long it takes me to complete the task. I now know that it takes me about 15 minutes to reconcile my monthly research account spending on my corporate credit card. That’s useful information because I now know that I can get this task done in one of those awkward 15 minute chunks of time that pop up in my schedule.
I also use this app to avoid procrastinating on a task that I don’t feel like doing or to work on a project in short bursts. I like to break overwhelming projects into smaller pieces. I can usually do any task for 30 minutes even if I don’t really want to do it. I promise myself that I only have to work on that task for 30 minutes and then I’ll stop. This works like a charm; I’ve made progress, but the evil task from Hell hasn’t stolen my entire day. Working in these shorter periods of time of intense focus and taking quick breaks in between is called the Pomodoro technique.

These three apps in combination keep me on track, organized, and focused during my work days and have helped me to increase my productivity.

How are you using apps on your iPad in your work as an academic? Feel free to comment below.