Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Managing Time

Long blog absences generally mean that someone isn't doing a very good job of managing their time. Sighs. It's been a busy-postdoc phase, which is a good thing because it means that I actually have work to do on multiple projects. It also means, however, that I have really had to re-evaluate how I manage my time.

As an experimental scientist one's single greatest asset is the ability to manage time. I've always been a fan of schedules, I used make little timetables for my day even as a little kid. I don't make schedules because I like to, I do it because I am chronically lazy and unless I set myself concrete targets to meet (preferably in writing), I will waffle and procrastinate. As a young grad student I was high on "doing science", and thrilled with the maverick aspects of research and liked to "go with the flow", "see where my data lead me" etc etc. It didn't work out so well as you can imagine.

So, I started making monthly schedules with the invaluable help of iCal. First big roadblock: my work computer and home computer did not have the same calendar entries or alerts. I tried synchronizing them, then decided that the best possible way was to have a paper copy. And that system has served me extraordinarily well ever since. I print out a monthly calendar with standing meetings on it, and then add all my experiments and other things on it. In pencil, because I do chop and change my plan a lot. I post that schedule on the corkboard above my desk and it stares balefully at me all day.

That worked really well in grad school, where I usually had to plan my experiments up to three or four weeks in advance, coordinate cell sorting schedules, GM-CSF addition, FACS time (the bane of all immunologists) etc. Now I find that I need to plan three months ahead because of the nature of the experiments. Three months! It's crazy and more anal than I'd like, but the whole house of cards is distinctly precarious when I don't plan that far ahead.

It really irks me to have to map out so much so far ahead. I detest feeling circumscribed by my schedule. Seriously, I am now one of those people who has to check their calendar all the time. There aren't FACS time calendars printed for the time I need to use them. The plain truth is, however, that my productivity has shot up since I started planning so far ahead. And I can say now, with relative confidence, that we can go out of town at X time since I won't have a pressing cell commitment then. Along with the calendar, I make a list of objectives for the next two months. What are the questions that need to be addressed now, how can I prioritize them, and what should I do when to optimize the use of my time. Together with the calendar, I felt really on top of things, on top of my game and in charge of my science.

Then I find myself mentoring two rotation students (first year grad students checking out the lab) and all my carefully made plans crumble. I am here all the time, rushing rushing rushing, trying to perform mad feats of time-juggling and trying to keep four projects and three people on track. And I have to say, it's not going to happen. This has exposed the crucial flaw in my scheduling system: inflexibility. If you're just one person, you can organize your time perfectly, plan all you need to do and execute with all the precision your heart can desire. You can't do that when you're mentoring other people. So I suppose the choice is whether you mentor people or not, and I feel very strongly that one should mentor, having been the recipient of some kickass mentoring myself. I am forced to conclude therefore that while planning and time management and the key to being productive in lab, I must schedule some wiggle room.