I recently decided to shake up my lab routine and schedule in an effort to enhance my productivity. Many of my lab mates live in apartments right across the street from lab and spend long “hours” in lab but aren’t particularly engaged with their work or busy during that time. My commute is more like 30-40 minutes, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve been wanting to get out of some of the bad habits I developed near the end of my PhD – namely, spending entirely too much time in lab unfocused and letting the rest of my life and work suffer for it. At the end of my grad work it seemed like I was going to be there all the time no matter what I did, but I think trying to get work done efficiently and go on to get other things in life done is a much better lifestyle for me.
To start, I spent some time reflecting on the periods of time I felt most productive in the lab. Certainly those final pushes to the PhD felt productive, but those were narrow in focus with specific experimental goals. These days I am balancing a far wider palette of experimental goals and day to day tasks. It led me to think about the early years, when I was a super-productive undergraduate researcher, getting research done and doing lab management part-time while taking a full load of classes.
I started working in the lab in the summer of 2003 as an undergraduate. Looking back, this was an interesting moment to start lab work in terms of the role of computer in the laboratory.
When I was an undergrad, laptops were heavy things, phones were dumb, and texting was not a thing anyone I knew did. You didn’t haul your laptop from class to class. We had two lab computers that everyone shared and it was understood that you were to use those first and foremost for lab tasks. If you were just surfing the Internet, anyone with a science task to do had every right to kick you off. I definitely used the computer as a tool to find papers and answer lab questions but didn’t spend much time on it in lab. If I had spare time between experiments I would be making a buffer or prepping for the next experiment or restocking tips or otherwise organizing our laboratory space.
In graduate school, however, it was a different story. In two of the three labs I rotated in, everyone brought their laptops to work and immediately set them up on their desks first thing every morning. In the third lab, each member had a lab-issued iMac on his or her desk waiting on them. With a computer at my desk, especially my computer on my desk, the nature of downtime in lab started to take a shift. Certainly it would be possible to look up papers in those free moments. But instead of making buffers, I found myself checking Facebook (who hasn’t?).
When I moved to my postdoc, I found an odd mix of the same – a few lab computers that were shared for explicitly lab tasks, but everyone bringing their own netbooks and laptops and smartphones to surf the internet with.
At some point, I decided that having a computer there at the ready was doing more harm than good for my laboratory achievements. I figured that evicting my laptop from the lab and only using the lab computer for most tasks could help me focus on the work at hand and completing it in the most efficient manner possible, not in a manner that favors long sedentary periods at my desk.
I have been fairly satisfied with the experiment three weeks in. I find that I spend less time on the Internet overall – the websites that were tempting must-reads in between Western blot washes don’t have the same allure when I’m at home and could be doing other things. I do use my smart phone to look up information quickly and to keep up with the happenings of the universe via Twitter (and listening to NPR via the Public Radio Tuner). I still look for and read papers but it is a more concentrated search.
Moreover, I find myself getting a lot more done in lab. I’m reclaiming those tiny snippets of time that I was freely giving up to the internet with the small things that let one stack experiments in an efficient manner. I’m not perfect at it every day but I feel more productive and have the completed to-do lists and data attempts to prove it. The day the data attempts turn into publishable data, I will brand this experiment a grand success, but with me and my advisor being happier with my progress, I may already be at great success levels.
If I were starting a lab tomorrow, I think I’d encourage communal computers for accountability purposes in most situations. This is obviously an option best for scientists who have an experimental, not computational approach, but unplugging from the Internet if possible could attain similar results. Clearly qualifying examinations, dissertation writing, paper writing, and grant writing are exceptionally computing-heavy times where an individual really needs their own electronic space. For these situations, I’ve found the applications Freedom and Anti-Social to be helpful in attaining similar goals of distraction-free work. Freedom blocks Internet access entirely while anti-social lets you block specific distracting domains (facebook.com, twitter.com, reddit.com, gawker.com, nytimes.com, whatever suits you) for a specific period of time.
I do wonder about the current trends in lab design – a bench and a desk with a computer on it for every scientist – and how these trends influence the way we work. I don’t think that design trend is changing anytime soon but I do think it is worth examining our habits of work – first thing, get in and set up the computer or start the first experiment? – to help keep the communication and analysis tools we have at hand from impeding the work we set out to do in the first place.