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.


hypoglycemiagirl said...

Sounds very good to be able to plan and being so productive. I'm a pretty good planner, but I'm lousy at actually doing what's on my plan, so everyting ends up being done in the last minute anyway

Wayfarer Scientista said...

"Life is what happens when you are planning"...yep, good luck balancing the two. Planning is important but so is flexibility and the balance seems to constantly shift.

Veo Claramente said...

hypoglycemiagirl, believe me the planning does not always work out, and this month has been a great example :)

wayfarer, could not agree more! i think i try to plan so much because i know that i would do less if i gave myself a choice.

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

I am inspired- i need to plan my days better.

I agree that one must mentor and pay it forward, so to speak, but I've decided to be a bit selfish this year and declined the opportunity. I felt a wee bit guilty, but decided it was for the best when I was still trying to gain my own foothold.

Veo Claramente said...

I didn't mentor anyone (successfully) in my first 8 months in the lab. Even now, I am only trying. I'm sure you will be great.

la rebelde said...

your post reminds me that i need to do some planning! i just started planning more over the last few weeks and it has done a wonder for my productivity. but part of me is already nostalgic for the "go with the flow" feeling, even if i was constantly stressed about not getting anything done!

Veo Claramente said...

tell me about it, efficiency is great but going with the flow was halcyon. it meant i didn't think of papers all the time!

Mad Hatter said...

I have two calendars--an Outlook calendar for meetings and sign-up times (why is it that the only available time is always on a FACScan when I need all four colors?!) and a desk calendar for experimental tasks. I write in ink, only because it irks me to have to make my calendar messy by crossing things off, which motivates me to do the little annoying things I would otherwise put off. Sad, huh?