Saturday, June 25, 2011

On being efficient at work

I've realised the single-most deterrent that slows me down at work is dragging my feet on tasks I feel I should've done earlier. So when I'm finally getting down to doing them, I'm still stalling, wondering, regretting why I didn't do it before. Instead of just putting my head down and plowing forth. 

The second time-waster is my terrible inability to switch gears between projects- even different experiments within the same project. Pulling my mind out of one and transporting it to another.

These are two issues I have been working on in the last leg of this post-doc, frankly because at this point I didn't have the luxury of time. I've improved at both, even if marginally. The solution to the first was to just convince myself that indeed, NOW was the best time to be doing it, not earlier. That is simple to do, just needs constant reminding to get rid of the self-doubt and remorse. The second was harder to get under control. One thing that helped was a lot better organization and some disciplined habits of note keeping. At the end of each experiment, I write out my TODO NEXT while it is still fresh in my head. I put this in a sticky on top of the notebook for that project. So that, I am able to tell, at a glance, where I am on each project, and what is the next immediate experiment I need to do for it when I revisit it, and not have to rewrap my brain over the past few experiments to see what is going on with it. Lately, I've gotten even more disciplined and keep a HUGE running table, checkmarking various steps as I have completed them. The table has gotten a bit out of control, but its a visual tool and saves me time in the long run.

 I do think I my note-book keeping skills have improved ALOT since my grad school days. I kept terrible notes in grad school. I wrote down every detail of the experiments I did, but it was all one huge single story book. :) There was no demarcation of different projects, different experiments nothing. No table of contents, no page numbers.

In my first post-doc lab I saw this superbly organized post-doc. She had a running excel spreadsheet table of contents, and a simultaneous hand-written one for each project. Each project of course, had separate note books. Every page was numbered. At the end of each day she updated her table of contents both on the computer and in hand. This way she could easily search through electronically if she was looking for something. 

Each page in her notebook had a set template. PAGE NUMBER, DATE, AIM, MATERIALS AND METHODS, RESULTS, CONCLUSION. She didn't necessarily repeat M&M for the same kinds of experiments, just said "Refer protocol #x". There was separate binder of protocols, and these protocols were numbered. 

Every project similarly had a different folder on the computer. So that, any analyses she did, figures she generated went into that folder. There was never a stray file on her desktop without a home labeled with an uninformative name like CANON4355.TIF. :) 

I have tried my best to emulate her ever since. Admittedly, I didn't get too far with my electronic table of contents- mainly because I have never had that discipline of sitting down at the same time each day at the end of the day and updating it. For her, it was an inbuilt habit. From 4:45 to 5:00 pm, that's what she did. Her day was planned accordingly. I have realised that just like exercise, keeping good notes is also something one has to invest in daily, we cannot let it pile up and take care of it all at once.

Then there is the added complication of good note-book keeping today when you do a lot of data analyses, write scripts, generate data sets, tables, etc. This my Ph.D. Mentor taught me to do well. To treat each run in the unix box as an experiment itself. To keep track of parameters used, operations carried out, a strict convention of filenaming (Not test, test2, test3). 

I want to continue working on this, and getting better at it at my new job, wherever that will be.

1 comment:

ferret said...

This post is great, i used to consider myself organised at work, but there's so much room for improvement i know.