When you are working at the bench and taking on other tasks, time management becomes crucial.
As a postdoc or graduate student, time is an invaluable resource. For me, there are basically three aspects that make time spent in the lab more efficient. I will try to outline them below.
1) Avoid the e-mail trap.
Although I always felt like spending a lot of time going through e-mails was not a great use of lab time, the wake-up call came after I attended a workshop for postdocs on how to increase productivity.
The time management part was great, and one of the things that stuck was the take home message, “If it’s really urgent, people will always call you. E-mails feel urgent because you have that little notification teasing you to go and check them.”
So you should focus on things that are more important first, and only after, go take care of that. Granted that you are expecting a response from someone about something that you need to do before you take on your other tasks, then you should be on top of it. Other than that, hit the bench first and take care of e-mails later, for example while you have an incubation time, which brings me to the second point.
2) Go multitasking!
Once you have been in the lab for a while, you probably know most of the protocols you use routinely by memory. So you know what you can coordinate and do things at the same time to be more efficient.
Yes, it is stressful, but unless you are being trained, or are unfamiliar with the techniques to be used, go for it. As an example, these days, my work revolves mostly around cell culture and western blots. So my little ritual goes like this: I put my cell culture medium to warm and go back to the main lab. I get my samples ready and set western blot gels to run. Since my gels take about two hours to finish running, I go back to cell culture and get a good chunk of it done. When the gels are ready to be transferred out of cell culture and back to the lab, I setup transfers, which never take less than two hours again.
Now at this point, I can take a peek at e-mails and grab a bite to eat. When the transfer is ready, I put the membranes to block for 2 hours, and back to cell culture.
That should be enough time to finish it off. If the cells take more of my time, it’s perfectly ok, because there is no such thing as “over-blocking”. When I am out of cell culture, I add the primary antibodies to my western blots and leave them incubating overnight. This is usually the time in which I polish lab journal notes, plan experiments for the next day and go through e-mails more extensively.
3) Avoid procrastinating.
Lab work sometimes involves less pleasant tasks. One can be tempted to put those off until the last possible moment. For me, what really helps is taking on the ugliest first. After doing so, all the other tasks will seem easier and/or less unpleasant. So whatever dull task is looming on me, I will tackle that first and then go on with the rest of the day.
Although this is not intended to be a set of universal solutions, if you look closely at your daily lab routine I am sure you can find parallels in your work and maybe take some of these ideas to work more efficiently.
Go lab productivity!