Lab management, time management and the joy of getting things done

by: in: Musingson April 29, 2016

Being a Lab Manager at the Interface Group or any other Research Lab is definitely an interesting and rewarding experience. It can also be infinitely frustrating when one realizes that the rate of task inflow has risen above the rate of task outflow. At this point it will be painfully obvious that the only way forward is to increase their productivity, and a good way to do that is through discipline and organization. I would like to write a few words on how I manage to get my head above water and keep it there, in the hopes that you, the reader, might be inspired to pick up a tip or two.

But first, what IS a “Lab Manager”? The word can mean many things for different organizations and the definitions can vary much indeed. It can mean “the person who makes sure that the lab is always stocked with consumables” and it can also mean “the person who is in charge of vast numbers of lab workers and is constantly on the lookout for ideas on improving lab operations”. At the Interface Group, the meaning of the term is fluid and adapts as the needs of the lab evolve. So, yes, I am this guy with two master degrees and one PhD who, on occasion, has actually spent brain power on deciding how many boxes of paper tissues need to be purchased for the lab. On other times, however, I will spend brain power on actively managing (and, if needed, micromanaging) the work of others in the group. Either way, I am always on the lookout for ideas on improving lab operations. And, either way, I always have too many things to do and too little time to do it.

So here are my tips on how to organize a large, varied and constantly shifting workload:

  • Everyday you are constantly being bombarded with new tasks that need to be done. They come through emails, notifications, phone calls, people knocking the door and through so many other means. When they do come in, they either accumulate in your brain, dragging you down and ruining your concentration or they slip through the cracks, get lost and never get done. Neither is good! To avoid it, make a habit of storing tasks that need to be done on a notepad, not your brain. Your brain is to be used for doing awesome things, not as a dumping ground for transient day to day tasks.
  • Carry this notepad with you at all times. Or a mobile phone, the medium does not matter. But carry something and be prepared to use it. If you are in a meeting, for example, and someone says something important, take the time to write it down. Interrupt them if you must. A minority might be annoyed. Everyone else will recognize that you are taking them seriously.
  • If an incoming task can be done within a short time, say, 1,2 or 5 minutes, no need to record it, just do it. Immediately. Drop whatever you were doing and finish the little task. You have already been interrupted anyway so get the task done and out of the way. (Exception: You probably do not want to do that during a meeting)
  • If an incoming task can be done more efficiently by someone else in your organization, delegate it to them. But make a note that the task has been delegated, to whom it has been delegated, and keep that note until the task has been completed. Equally important, write down what has to be done next as a response to the delegated task’s completion so you do not forget when the time comes.
  • Personally I have two plain text files on my computer to accomplish the above. One file named “ToDo” and another one named “Waiting For”. I open up those files every morning before I check my email and close them every evening before I shut down my computer. All new tasks go in the “ToDo” list. All tasks delegated to someone else go into the “Waiting For” list. Nothing gets deleted until a task is completely finished. In what comes below I will assume that you follow my example in terminology.
  • If an incoming task needs to be done on a specific date, feel free to write it on your calendar so you do not forget. But all other tasks that have no specific timestamp associated to them should be on your “ToDo” list. The fact that a task is on your “ToDo” list means that it needs to be done “yesterday”! So get on with it!
  • If, during the day, you have made notes on other media, for example on paper during a meeting, transfer those onto your “ToDo” list at the earliest opportunity. This avoids fragmentation. When you open your “ToDo” list you should trust that this what you have to do and that you do not have to do anything else.
  • Review those two files constantly. Feel free to reorder the tasks so that the ones you intend to do first are towards the top of the list. You don’t have to do first the most important task, it’s better to do first the task that, in your current mental state, you will be most efficient at. For example, mentally challenging tasks in the morning and easier tasks in the evening. But it’s also a good idea to write down deadlines next to important tasks so that you take this into account when reordering.
  • If you notice that a task is too big or too large to wrap your brain around it, break it up into smaller tasks that are easier to do. Re-order them as you see fit and then get them done! One, by one, by one!
  • If you decide to delegate a task from your “ToDo” list to someone else, move it to the “Waiting For” list and write down who should do it and what task you must do as soon as the delegated task is completed. If a task from your “Waiting For” list is completed, the ball is yours again. Write down on you “ToDo” list what has to be done next.
  • Some tasks are just never completed. Either because they are too hard, or because they have expired and no longer make sense, or because resources are better allocated elsewhere. These tasks have to be dropped. But when something is to be dropped, make it a conscious decision, don’t just silently drop it. Do it deliberately, document that the task has been dropped and notify everyone involved. This way you can really take it off your books and focus on getting done the stuff that matters.
  • And, of course, when a task from your “ToDo” list is actually done, strike it off with a little mental celebration! Personally, I even copy it to a file of “Finished Tasks” for future reference. Mission accomplished, quest completed, the dragon is dead! Reward yourself with a quick break or chose as your next task one that is fun to do!

Remember, people like to be productive! We all enjoy the feeling that things are moving along and hate feeling swamped. By meticulously documenting what needs to be done in a way similar to the one described above, and by breaking tasks into simple to do chunks, everyday work can start feeling almost as effortless as playing a computer game: New quest -> “Complete this document and sent it to your colleague” -> Quest completed! -> New quest: “Wait for your colleague to finish proof-reading” -> Quest completed! -> New quest: “Submit the document” -> Quest completed! Rejoice! And feel the Joy of Getting Things Done!

Note: Some of these ideas on how to manage myself, my work and my time I have developed while reading “Getting Things Done” by David Allen which I would strongly recommend to anyone who would like to increase their productivity. Just buy it and read it. No, I’m not affiliated in any way with the author. A word of warning though: Treat this book (and any other self-help book for that matter) not like Holy Scripture but more like a good and trusted friend with whom you agree to disagree on some issues but who can always give you a word of advice when you most desperately need it. The same applies to this blog post; use your brain and decide what works best for you!

Lab management, time management and the joy of getting things done

Anastasios Marmaras

is the Lab Manager of The Interface Group. He makes certain that everything and everyone works at peak efficiency. He also finds time to do research on the side.

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