There’s no question - scientific research is a tough profession. The job requires significant mental effort on a daily basis: analyzing data, writing code, absorbing the literature, drafting manuscripts. The bottom line for career advancement is always produce, produce, produce (all the while carving out your own intellectual niche). So how do we optimize our workday? What are some ways to remove roadblocks and facilitate the process of creativity? The answers will vary for each person, but over time I’ve identified some critical factors for my own personal productivity (and perhaps these will help you too).
Whether you have your own office or work in a shared space, I recommend doing whatever you can to organize your office space to be both functional and productive. If you can pick out furniture, choose shapes and colors that you really like. Don’t make a quick decision, and don’t be afraid to shop around to find a setup that will really work for you. Designing your office is like picking out a mattress - you’re going to spend a lot of time at your desk, so you want to make sure it's both ergonomic and provides all the features you need. That might mean two desks (maybe one standing desk, one sitting desk), or even a treadmill desk setup.
Organizing your workday
I use a combination of online and paper planning tools to organize my own workday. I use post-it notes to capture and prioritize tasks, and the night before each workday I will write down the three most important tasks I need to accomplish the next day (and that post-it gets stuck right on my laptop). For long-term planning and tracking monthly goals, I use an online notecard/bulletin board website called Trello. I love the layout, the ability to drag and color-label cards, and the capacity to organize cards into lists. For me, Trello is fun and intuitive to use, just like my collection of pens and paper stationary. Recently I’ve also been experimenting with the Bullet Journal method, although I’m still on the fence about whether it’s something I’ll incorporate into my organizational strategy.
There are lots of formal productivity systems with good online communities - examples include GTD (“Getting Things Done”) and the Pomodoro method. If you don’t want to mix and match tools (or you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the options), experimenting with a formal system might be the best way forward. I personally love the Pomodoro method, which involves working for 25 minute timed blocks (“Pomodoros”), followed by a 5-minute timed break. I use Pomodoros especially for things like grant proposals, which are stressful and mentally intensive and require you to put in a lot of time. Having built-in breaks makes the process less painful and gives you something to look forward to (you also get longer 15-minute breaks after doing 3-4 Pomodoros). And I find it much easier to keep working for long stretches if my brain knows it only has to concentrate for 25 minutes at a time.
Some other things I’ve learned:
- Invest in good carry on luggage - don’t check bags. In addition to avoiding baggage fees, the mobility of carry on luggage is liberating - and it becomes a real advantage if you get bumped or miss a connecting flight. I assure you that you can fit all you need in a good sized carry on, you just have to plan what you’ll need and bring a multipurpose wardrobe. As proof, I can confirm that for one 2-week trip to Japan I managed to fit both professional conference outfits and hiking gear in a carry-on suitcase.
- Science gives you amazing opportunities to experience different cities, countries, and cultures. You have to eat while traveling, so I always use trips as an opportunities to explore local cuisine and dining experiences.
It's not essential to adhere to all of this advice - I'm only trying to convey some of the things that work well for me. Experimentation is key to success, and when once you find something that works, the next step is to built it into a habit. Take your time—and above all, enjoy the process.