Life in the Lab

A procrastinator’s guide to scheduling your time in lab

Tips and low- and high-tech tools to help you overcome sticking points in your projects
Elizabeth Stivison
April 9, 2021

One of the difficult things about lab life for me has always been the self-made structure (though it’s also a great part of lab work). I often find myself with big ideas and excitement but not making progress because I'm not sure where or how to start so things get put off. And then there are those overbusy days and underbusy days because I didn’t plan well. I've been trying to figure out how to solve this for myself for a while. I must not be the only one trying to work this out!

So this week I wanted to share what I’ve learned about how to schedule your time in lab and deal with procrastination.

Variables and considerations

When trying to schedule and carry out lab work, there are many things to do and consider

Decide priorities: Priorities can be things in or out of lab. Usually priorities are key experiments that you (or your principal investigator) think are the most important, but sometimes they will be writing up a paper, making figures, getting a presentation ready, preparing for a qualifying exam, etc. If you have limited time, these are the things that must be scheduled. Especially as a grad student, it helps to make sure you and your PI are on the same page about what the priorities are.

You can then schedule the big things and fit other smaller pieces around them.

Break your tasks into steps: This helps with both scheduling and with just figuring out how to start a big task. The sizes of these steps can vary quite a bit. My lab mate is a "Clone gene X into plasmid" person while I am a "Look for cloning reagents, check if I need to order anything, download DNA sequence, design primers, etc." kind of person. I like every single step laid out so I can cross off each thing and feel productive. I also have a hard time figuring out how long things will take. If I write out every single step, I can get a better idea.

Steps can also include things like booking shared equipment so that when I need the plate reader, for example, I know I can go use it.

Another advantage of breaking things into small pieces is that there often turn out to be many easy parts of a seemingly complicated task. When I’ve been putting something off because it seems too hard or complicated, once I break it up I find there are things I can do easily and right away.

Schedule “rose petal” time: I read an article once by a procrastinator that stuck with me. I have never been able to find it again to give them credit, but the author stated that when they really, really wanted to put off a task because it was just too big or hard, they would allow themselves to put it off one day, but they had to do everything they could possibly do to make the task easier the next day. They had to line the path to the task with rose petals, metaphorically. Meaning, if I’m putting off doing an experiment because it’s too complicated or too long, I can allow myself to put it off one day but then today I have to get the tubes I’ll need, label them, make the buffers, autoclave the flasks, and so on, so that when I do finally sit down to do the experiment, I’ve made the road easy for myself. I now consistently schedule these tasks the day before a big experiment, and it has really cut down on how much I put off because I’ve already started the task and eliminated that activation energy requirement.

Consider deadlines, or make them up: This is another thing that makes lab work tricky for me. I have a hard time with "soon" or "right away." I usually need a deadline to actually do something. On big ongoing projects in lab, that often isn't the case. There isn't always a discreet deadline other than "soon." Sometimes my brain interprets this as "OK, to procrastinate," which obviously becomes a problem soon enough. To get around this, I try to make up shorter-term deadlines. For example, I’ll decide I want something done by my lab meeting so I can show the data. Or I'll just comment to my boss, "I think I'll have this next week." By speaking it aloud, I made the deadline real for myself.

Figure out how long things take: If you're like me and constantly misestimate how long tasks take, and that throws off what little scheduling ability you have, try timing them. This was a revelation for me. In my former lab, I would constantly block out 45 minutes for a task that had a 30-minute and a 15-minute incubation. I never realized how much time the setup took. I finally timed it and realized the protocol, including setup, takes an hour and a half, and that’s why I was never done by that 4 p.m. meeting when I started it at 3.

Use this data to stagger experiments: Use the info you have from breaking things into pieces and timing experiments to stagger your schedule. Many experiments take a long time, but sometimes a good chunk of that time is waiting. Incubations, timepoints, etc. If you plan these out, you can work in other tasks in between.

Work backward from "Done" dates: Considering what you need to get done and when, you can count backward to figure out when and what to start. For example, if I am to do an assay on Thursday, I can count the days and hours I need for serum starvation and refeeding, and I will end up having to plate cells on Monday, which means I need to have a lot of cells growing the Friday before.

Or, for example, if you know revisions on a paper must be done in three months, you can count backward from that to figure out when things must be done.

Implementation

OK, so that's a lot to think about. How do you actually implement these tips? There seem to be three main ways.

Paper: Every day or week, write out your projects and list of things to do on paper. Preferably in a notebook, rather than scrap paper so you can refer to it in the future in case you need to confirm any dates. This can be a part of your lab notebook or a supplemental notebook just for scheduling.

Scheduling on paper has the advantage of being physical. If you are someone who thinks better with something you can touch, that works. It’s also easily brought around the lab and, unlike a laptop, can get a little wet or dirty and it’s OK.

It can be especially useful for drawing out plans with arrows and other things that are harder to type, as well as for scheduling down to the minute. I sometimes will write out the minutes of a busy day when I have multiple experiments going, so if I zone out during the day and lose track of what I'm doing I can just look at my time table: "2:35 move lysates to 95 degrees. 2:40 split WT cells. 2:45 spin down lysates."

Low-tech tech: This is the method I'm currently trying out. I made an Excel sheet that has the days of the week across the top in a row and the projects I'm working on down the left in a column. I fill in the grid and space out my work accordingly. I also have an Excel sheet for each project and the big things that need to get done. (What is the exact next step? What is stalled? What am I'm waiting for?) I check this sheet at the beginning of every week when I set up my schedule.

Then I can see if I haven't worked on one project for a little bit and determine if it is because I need something that I don't have or just because it's lower priority and other projects have taken up my time.

Sometimes I find a project stops making progress when there is a step that I'm not sure how to start. In these cases, having this list is helpful to prevent me from procrastinating actually working out the details. I can start breaking down the steps and get moving again.

Another low-tech tech solution is to do this all in a calendar app like Google Calendar. You can color code different experiments and block off amounts of time. One advantage of this over the Excel method is that in Excel "freeze cells" takes up as much physical space on the page as "lyse cells," when in real life, for me, freezing cells takes 10 minutes and lysing cells takes a few hours. So, scheduling in a calendar can help judge how much you have going on each day. You can also block out recurring things like lab meeting and seminars.

High-tech tech: There are a number of apps and websites for scheduling and project management. Some options are ClickUp, Trello, Asana, Todoist, Microsoft Teams, Toggl Track, and specifically for labs, Benchling (which is also an online lab notebook). These offer various ways to track progress and schedule your time. Some offer collaboration facilitation as well. They all offer at least some of the features free. I’m hoping to try these next, but I often find learning new tech more daunting than doing the big experiments I was putting off. Many people find these useful, though!

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling.

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