Do you often find yourself busy but not very productive? Do you struggle with deadlines or fumble your way through projects? Maybe you have a lot of great ideas but don’t have time to execute them. If that’s the case, maybe you need to adopt some of the productivity secrets of ACS Publications Editors-in-Chief. George Schatz, Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Physical Chemistry and Vince M. Rotello, Editor-in-Chief of Bioconjugate Chemistry, recently shared their tips for staying on task and getting great things done in the lab. Read on to discover their insights:
Break Projects Into Manageable Tasks
“It is a crucial skill for researchers to work systematically to ensure they make progress on a regular basis for research projects,” says Schatz. He suggests students start each day listing out the tasks they need to accomplish. Even though this might sound simple, it is a critical step toward completing an ambitious project. A productive researcher must possess the skills to identify and prioritize important tasks within a project, as well as the discipline to meet the daily goals they set.
Set to Priorities to Avoid Distractions
“Once a reasonable goal is set,” Schatz says, “one ought not to get distracted by extraneous things.”
You only have 24 hours a day, so staying on-task is critical. Distraction is everywhere and takes many forms. The first step to avoiding distraction is being able to prioritize tasks. List out everything that requires your attention and ask yourself if each task on the list fits with your research goal. If you can only tackle so many issues in a day, you need to take care of the most important tasks first.
Be Realistic About Your Commitments
Rotello tells his students not to over-commit themselves to tasks they don’t have the time to accomplish. “I often see people take on more tasks than they can handle, in which case sometimes even a good idea can end up becoming a burden and yield no results,” Rotello says.
Developing a process for deciding which tasks to take on can require a little bit of trial and error. Rotello stresses the importance of looking critically at your own work and being honest about what you’re able to accomplish. After all, if you’re not getting all your most important work done, you might be affecting others’ productivity as well.
“If you keep finding yourself being the rate limiting step,” he says, “change the pathway.”
Own Your Work
Rotello urges young researchers to take ownership of their projects. Researchers should be like homeowners and not renters, he says. An owner of a house is proactive and tries to plan ahead to keep the house in shape within a reasonable budget; whereas a renter is passive and waits for others to fix problems, he says. Similarly, a good researcher should be proactive in their planning and willing to tackle problems as they happen.
“It is critical for scientists to see a research project as a whole,” Rotello advises, “and to carefully plan each piece that needs to be done.” Taking the control experiment in a research project as an example, Rotello says a good researcher would spend their time meticulously designing the experiment to ensure it produces useful data from which the team can learn.
Expect the Unexpected
But a researcher must also learn how to set a realistic timeline for his or her project.
“Things always come up,” Rotello says, “even though your calendar looks empty now, it may be full with unexpected tasks very soon.” It’s a good idea to leave extra time for each task, in case you run into complications.
Accept Setbacks Graciously
Students need to prepare for the possibility of failure and be ready to approach it in a productive way, according to Schatz.
“Failure is inherent in the nature of scientific research, so it does happen;” Schatz says, “therefore, it is important to talk about things with colleagues and with one’s adviser when this happens, and ultimately to come up with a way to decide when the time has come to quit and move to other projects.”
Know When to Move On
Both editors stressed the importance of knowing when to cut your losses and find a new project.
“Some students get emotionally attached to a project and don’t know when to quit,” Schatz says. He suggests giving a project a reasonable deadline for generating results and then moving on if the project doesn’t measure up.
If you have to quit a project, try not to become discouraged. Rotello points out that we can all learn something valuable from our failures and eventually build on that knowledge to find success.
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