Thursday, February 20, 2014

Productivity Tools For the Nascent Scientists

 This post previously appeared in the Mayo Clinic Diversity in Education Blog on Feb. 13th, 2014.

75% of graduate students in a recent survey have reported dealing with stress in the past year. The main source of stress is the pressure to produce. And why not? With deadlines, classes, experiments, and presentations, graduate students are under a lot of pressure to produce. There are three ideas for increasing productivity that I use regularly and maybe they can help you as well. I didn't come up with these ideas, I learned them (see the embedded links in the text), and below I will provide an example of their utility in a scientific research environment. But before I do, there are two things you should already have:

1. FOCUS (a goal, a thesis, a dream)
2. A documentation system (i.e. a pencil, a laptop, a smart phone, or a stone tablet).
You can't produce anything without a focus and you can't achieve results without a system to measure progress. Now that you have a thesis and a pencil, let’s get going.
1. Frequency
Science is all about getting results from a set of conditions that have not yet been fully defined. That is why what we do is called experimentation. But with this uncertainty comes a certain fear that we will fail. In the regular world, the things that people do have risk associated with them and success is never 100%. In science, each experiment comes with even more risk than in the regular world. Whereas, a day trading stock investor might have a 20% success rate, if those gains are high enough for each win he can compensate for his losses. The same is true in science, except on a good day, my rate of success in the beginning, due to bad reagents, bad design, bad hypothesis, etc., was less than 5%; i.e. 95 out of 100 experiments have something wrong with them. (That doesn't mean I didn't get something out of them, just that what I got wasn't expected.) This is where frequency comes in. (one of the 5 rules touted by author Brett Harward in 'The 5 Laws that Determine all of Life's Outcomes') Frequency is, of course, the number of peaks or valleys in a given period. Increasing the number of peaks (or experiments) in a given period, does nothing for your success ratio, it does however increase the number of successes in a specific period of time.
In my own work, frequency is dependent on a number of things, some general, such as non-work related responsibilities and events (a life outside the lab is important if you are to retain your sanity in the lab). Some are specific to my work; such as the rate of cell growth for my neuroblastoma cell lines or the time it takes to prep transfection plasmids. But despite these concerns, an increase in frequency is possible by coordinating and overlapping activities to maximize the number of experiments that are completed in a given amount of time. Furthermore, this overlapping system can increase the frequency that you do a lot of other things as well; you just need a focus and a pencil. Organizing your productivity can be implemented by using productivity tool number 2.
2. Action Items
The second productivity tip is called the action item. In David Allen's book "Getting Things Done," he provides an organizational framework for increased productivity by the creation of lists. The most fundamental tool that this system provides is that it separates actionable items from ideas. Projects (another word for a 'focus') must therefore be examined periodically to determine the next 'action item.' By adopting an organizational strategy in which all major goals or projects are examined every week, and creating daily lists of 'action items' regarding these projects to fulfill, an individual will find themselves rapidly completing projects and reducing stress. Allen suggests that calendar items be separate from 'to do' list items. He even suggests that items be sub-categorized by location. For example, if in the process of performing a western blot a brain storm hits you about a potential new experimental direction that requires your PI's input, jot it down in a list entitled 'Meeting with PI' and examine this list just prior to a meeting with your PI to make sure you cover all subjects on the list. I find that using a good note program on my smart phone, such as Evernote, helps for having these lists on hand when I need them. Action items are a list of 'what to do' whereas our documentation system mentioned above is a list of "what is done." Examining what we have done is a major part of productivity tool number 3.

3. Accountability
What does accountability have to do with productivity? A lot. Accountability in this sense does not refer to job responsibilities, which you are accountable for, but to personal accountability; i.e. that which we hold ourselves accountable. Those who are not accountable for their actions don't learn from their mistakes, because they don't recognize them as personal mistakes. Ergo, they are bound to repeat them. Accountability, as Brett Harward suggests in his book (see point 1 above), is basically the same as rapid learning. Whereas, increasing your frequency in a given period can increase the number of successes you have in a given time, accepting and understanding the role you played in each failure; i.e. being accountable will help you to reduce your error rate. A good hypothesis will lead to more success than a bad one and a good experimental design will do the same. Recognizing where you went wrong, means accepting your fallibility and being shamed time and again, but you will find victory a whole lot faster for that occasional mud in the face. "It wasn't my fault," is never an honest answer. You have always played some role in getting yourself into a situation, and 'your role' is the only part of the equation you can fix. Accountability means focusing your attention on that which you can change and not on the parts that you cannot. Did you fumble a calculation or switch a key reagent? It wouldn't be the first time and it won't be the last. I can assure you of that. The key to knowing what you did is your documentation system, the key to knowing what you want to achieve is your focus. By the end of four years (plus) in my PhD program, my error rate had gone down considerably by using this method.
Every one of us has had a set of frustrating experiments that just doesn't seem to work. We tried changing the buffer concentrations but the western is still muddy and full of non-specific banding. We increased the concentration of the primary, we decreased the concentration of the secondary, we tried pre-clearing the beads but the band we want still isn't distinguishable... and we've been at it for over a month and our committee wants this one IP to validate two years of work. Accountability doesn't solve all of these problems, a bad reagent or buffer may just require trial and error. That is where frequency comes in. Action items detail what we will do next. And finally accountability of our mistakes directs our future progress. Problems don't miraculously disappear, but pressure can be controlled by creating a set of rules to follow and systematically working through to a solution. My suggestions may not reduce all anxiety but they should help. I encourage you to pick up the books I suggested in this post, and others, for more detailed information on productivity.

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