Friday, July 25, 2008

Postdoctoral Multitasking.

Amanda posted a comment over at FSP's post on this topic asking to hear more about how to do this.

When I started this blog (eons ago), I sometimes did posts on a "typical day in the life" format.

Today, for example, I had a meeting this morning (about 1 hour), right now I'm taking a break, then I'll go do some benchwork (about 1 hour), get lunch, (less than 1 hour) do a little reading/thinking for ~ 2 hours (I have a TON of reading to do this week!), and then go collect some data on samples I made yesterday (~ 2-3 hours). If the data look good, I'll spend ~2 hours analyzing them. If not, I'll read some more and think about what to do differently next time.

This is a pretty typical day for me.

Some of the things we do are perfect for multitasking. FSP has written about this before, I think, and I probably have too.

One of the key things to learn is the 5-minute trick. You can get a lot done in 5 minutes if you're good at switching gears. I have always been like this, maybe because I'm a little bit ADD (?).

If you can't do 5 minutes, start with 30 minutes or 1 hour. I used to routinely do a western blot (long 1-3 hour incubations waiting for gel to run and then transfer and then incubate in antibody) and while that was going, do another type of experiment with shorter incubations (say 30-60 minutes each) and while those were all going, read papers. Seriously. Nested multitasking is the best if you can time it just right. Even if all you have are 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, you can read through half a paper before you have to start the next step. I promise you'll be amazed at how much you can get done if you start timing yourself.

In fact, I've had some interesting chats with people about whether or not to use a timer in lab. Who cares if my blot goes an extra 15 minutes, they say? To which I say, that is 15 minutes you just wasted, isn't it?

I stay on task AND make sure my gels don't run off by using a timer. I adore 3-button timers. That little beeping voice makes you aware.

In an average day, I work on 3 experiments, sometimes one for each of my projects. I don't usually complete 3 experiments in a day, since most of the things I do now require overnight steps, etc. But that's okay!

The key to multitasking, as far as I can tell, is thinking about how long each step will take, and planning everything before you start. Make sure you leave room for error (e.g. we ran out of methanol and nobody ordered more and now I have to spend 30 minutes running around borrowing some).

I always say if you can cook, you can do well in lab. It's the same idea. Nobody likes it when you finish the main dish and the potatoes won't be done for another hour. So you start the potatoes first. It's really that simple.

But you have to know the techniques involved. It's hard to multitask (and I wouldn't recommend it) with all new techniques.

For those, I say do one thing at a time, at least the first time through, until you know what to anticipate.

For writing, you can do the same thing. Set a timer. I actually found some cute applications online that let you set multiple taskbars for writing, so you can keep track of how long you've been working on several projects plus keep yourself from cheating by setting a tracker for how long you spent blogging (guilty) or checking email.

The best writers will tell you, one hour a day can be enough to finish most projects relatively quickly, if it's a productive hour. I think the most common misconception about writing is that it takes a lot of time. I always say writing does not take a long time, thinking about what to write is the hard part, and you can do that fast if you have a good strategy for making decisions.

I could do a whole blog post on how I write, but since I'm no Einstein with lots of one-word-journal papers, I can't believe anybody cares! Maybe you should ask someone more Successful about that.

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At 12:11 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

I'm not quite as anal as you are about using the timer but I also find it relatively easy to do 2 or 3 things at once, particularly during western blots or immunohistochemistry as that's when I can get a lot of writing/reading/blogging done. Also, I often have several assays/techniques that are common between my studies and doing them altogether can be a good way to get a lot done in a relatively short amount of time as well as reducing inter-assay variability.

I'm close to being the Worst Cook in the Entire World so maybe I'm the exception to the good cook = good multitasker rule.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger jonathan said...

Hah! FSP's post on multitasking seems to have gotten a lot of people talking. I also posted something about an issue related to FSP's post.


"I stay on task AND make sure my gels don't run off by using a timer. I adore 3-button timers. That little beeping voice makes you aware."

This is great. I _so_ agree. Personally, I worship my little black DIAGGER timer with the yellow button. Without it, I would never get anything done becuase I hopelessly tangential.

I'm one of those people who, for example, opens a new window in the background everytime I see a link that might be interesting. My screen is an endless pile of open, unread Firefox windows. I even use a separate browser for email because ...

oh shyt - my timer's beeping. Better luck next time.

At 5:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

PiT- I said If you can cook, you can do well in lab.

I didn't say the converse is always true. =D


I must be too burned out or something. I rarely see that many links that interest me!

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Dr. A said...

Great post! You make it sound so easy...

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

dr a,

It IS easy. And I've been doing it for a lot of years, not that anybody above me seems to notice that.

What I can't figure out is how to stop being such a good little postdoc and get hired as a PI...

At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Multitasking really is an art. I find that people who start in a lab without having had to juggle too many things in 'real life' really struggle with being efficient because they can't multitask well. I remember having a conversation about this with some fellow students when I was in grad school. Many of us had waited tables in college and we agreed it was the best training for learning to multitask. If you know you have to get water for one table, bring a salad to another, and bring the bill for yet another, why make three trips? The concept holds true for experiments!

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Candid Engineer said...

I love my timer, too, but I bring it to my desk to count UP as opposed to DOWN. There are several idiots in my lab who like to set their timers to count down and then leave the lab. Today (not kidding), there were three different buzzers going off simultaneously, unattended. Could have pulled my hair out. I wish they were as efficient as you and were present to get back to task when their timers start beeping.

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


It's so funny you should say that. I am having one of those weeks when I think I'd be happier waiting tables. It's nice to think I might not suck at it!


That is one of my pet peeves.

Most timers nowadays have a clip on them for a reason: SO YOU CAN TAKE THEM WITH YOU!!!

ARGH. In one of my former lives, I got to the point where I told people, I WILL turn your timer off if it's beeping and you're not here, and if you're lucky I'll tell you what time that was (!).

Some of them actually got better about it when they realized they were leaving their timer - and their experiment - alone with me for god only knows how long!


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