No matter how much support they receive from their PI or manager, the individual researcher at the bench is still responsible for their output and furthering their scientific career. Maintaining efficient work habits can not only reduce the stress of the demanding pace of research, but actually result in higher quality and quantity of data. Here are some simple, effective tips that you can try right away, one at a time or in concert, to increase your efficiency in the lab.
1. Clean Working Areas and Benchtops
In science, there is an old saying that a messy bench (or hood) is a productive one. But the reality is that a cluttered workspace not only decreases your ability to find and organize materials, it could even lead to sample contamination. Clean workspaces are also a common component of most environmental health and safety laboratory inspection checklists. Each night before you go home, tidy up your bench—put away chemicals and other reagents, place dirty glassware in the sink, and throw away badly soiled benchtop napkins. Organize papers, notes, and unsorted data piling up on your desk. A small step each day might do a lot to increase long-term productivity and research efficiency.
2. Start Every Day With a To-Do List
There is nothing more stressful, especially as a young researcher managing multiple projects, than coming to the lab and having so much to do that you don’t even know where to begin. Daily to-do lists are an essential component of optimizing time management and organization. Start your day by assessing priorities, progress, and noting down daily tasks to compose a smart to-do list. This will help you reduce feeling overwhelmed by your workload, help focus your efforts and keep track of progress, and create a record of your work for troubleshooting and group meetings.
3. Collaboration Leads to Innovation
While you and you alone are responsible for your projects and experiments, science is inherently a collaborative field. Instead of beating your head against a wall, or repeating experiments that clearly aren’t working, take advantage of your labmates’ and collaborators’ experience and expertise. Review protocols and steps to ensure that you’re performing experiments efficiently. Talking to labmates and sharing setbacks as well as triumphs in group meetings will ensure wasting as little time as possible on dead-end projects and quicker diagnosis of setbacks.
4. Outsourcing: Sometimes, Time Does Equal Money
Making the most of grant money and resources is a constant source of consternation for laboratory managers and PIs, especially during tough economic times and downturns in funding. Certain expenditures, however, can save lab members time and streamline their research. If you run a large molecular biology lab, for example, purchasing large consumables like prepoured antibiotic plates or growth media might be more efficient (and accurate) than relying on lab members to produce them. Likewise, you may find that data analysis or a technique that would take significant time for a researcher to learn can just as easily be outsourced to an expert collaborator or company.
5. Work Less Hours, Not More
This seems like contradictory advice, given the fact that academia is notorious for requiring long work hours at all research levels. However, the latest research on time management and workplace effectiveness shows that working fewer hours can actually result in greater productivity. One of my graduate school classmates confirmed that nothing incurred greater efficiency in her research output than being forced into working fewer hours due to having a child. Think about it. Of the 12+ hours you work in the lab, how many are spent actually working? Record a daily analysis of your workday for a week to see if you could restructure your workday to eliminate unnecessary time expenditures or increase productivity in the lab.
6. Use Project Management Software to Organize
There is no greater tool for streamlining lab-wide productivity and efficiency than implementing a laboratory information management system (LIMS). Not only can a LIMS system help automate laboratory tasks and digitize data and reagent storage, it can increase accuracy of results through analysis and communication tools, and eliminate wasting of resources through unnecessary or duplicate orders. In addition, most modern LIMS systems are cloud-based and easily accessible by all lab members via individual internet log-ins. With all of the aforementioned benefits, helping scientists make the most out of their research potential seems like a no-brainer!
7. Faithful Daily Record Keeping
“I’ll update my laboratory notebook tomorrow. I promise.” These are the famous last words of every researcher. Before you know it, a month’s worth of gel pictures, charts and experiment notes have piled up on your desk, resulting in an overwhelming amount of updating and even less impetus to do it. It’s a vicious cycle. As menial and unpleasant as the task may seem, updating your laboratory notebook, reference archives and notes on a regular basis is an important practice for maintaining research accuracy, noting down important details and results as they happen and saving time in the long term. None of the above ideas for improving efficiency can be properly utilized without a commitment to faithful recordkeeping. Academic studies have even been conducted on the best practices for individuals and labs. Take advantage of digital notebooks and reference software such as EndNote to update research progress faster and make referencing painless for drafting publications and theses.
Do you have any additional helpful tips based on your own practices? Has your laboratory implemented other useful time-saving tips that we should know about? Let us know by commenting below. And please let us know how our suggestions work out for you.