Work smarter, not harder: Resources for time management in graduate school

by Callie Chappell 

I’m a little obsessed with work efficiency. I track all of my time (details below), take notes on an iPad, and have a calendar that most people would shudder at. Throughout my life, people know me as the person to help “get s**t done.” However, I have a dirty secret: most of the time, I keep a 40-hour work week. And I don’t just keep a 40-hour work week, but I also regularly take long weekends, go on vacation, and spend a little too much time cleaning my apartment…I mean procrastinating.

This obsession with work efficiency was motivated by a sly comment I overheard while in high school. Working the check-in table at parent-teacher conferences, I overheard a classmate’s mother point at me and whisper, “that Callie, she’s a hard worker, but she’s not very smart.” Although it took some time for my self-confidence to recover, it motivated me to show her—and the world—that I could work harder and smarter.

In this post, I want to share some of the resources I use to maximize my work efficiency and I’d love to hear your strategies as well.

Calendars:

As an undergraduate, I used a Passion Planner to outline my time management for each day. I loved the Passion Planner because I could visually block off my time and included a wide range of times. Additionally, Passion Planner includes a variety of personal and professional goal-setting tools, both over the long and short-term. Although I no longer use the Passion Planner (I switched to a completely digital system) I still utilize these goal-setting strategies and I know several graduate students who love using the Passion Planner.

Other similar products include the Bullet Journal and the hipster’s (do people even talk about hipsters anymore?) favorite, the Moleskine.

Now, I keep several digital calendars for different topics (lab, the official lab calendar, university events, social events, coordinating with undergraduates I supervise, classes, etc.) and since they are mixed Google calendars and Outlook calendars (for some reason, Stanford no longer uses Gmail, much to my extreme displeasure), I sync them all through iCal. I also send scheduled to-do items from Todoist into their own separate calendars, but I will talk more about Todoist below.

Project Management:

As graduate students, we balance several projects at once. Most projects have many moving parts, collaborators, and perhaps also undergraduate research assistants. Because I often have a bazillion things on my plate, it’s useful for me to break each project into chunks, assign myself a soft deadline for each chunk, and also outsource those chunks to collaborators and other researchers. Luckily, some companies have thought much more about efficient management than most researchers, and I took a leaf out of the business school book when designing my project management strategy.

I use a combination of Trello and Todoist. Both are digital apps that can be organized by projects and integrate due dates and check lists. Most importantly, they can be shared with collaborators that can edit checklists and projects in real time.

I use Trello to organize projects. Each research project (dissertation chapter/paper) gets its own “Board” in Trello, which I can share with other Trello users to collaborate on. Below is an example I was working on for a summer, primarily in collaboration with two exemplary undergraduate researchers in the lab. As you can see here, for each board, I can create “Cards” for each component in the project. In each card, I can include check-lists, due dates (with calendar integration), attach documents, and do many other functions (see below). I move cards that I’m working on into “working” and “done” piles. This project management strategy is also useful for working on a team and especially with working with undergraduates. I can track which components of projects undergraduates are working on in Trello as they move cards from “to-do”, to “working” and “done” piles, as well as individual items on the checklists. This is especially useful to help undergrads work autonomously. I also ask undergraduates to upload scanned copies of their lab notebook pages to corresponding Trello cards to keep up-to-date on their experiments, even if I don’t see them in the lab.

Trello 1.png

Figure 1: This is what the desktop Trello interface looks like on Mac (personal information redacted). The web interface looks similar. As you can see, we have various “cards” (each labelled with the notebook, project, and experiment number) in “stacks” of “to-do”, “doing”, “done”, and “no longer doing”. Each of the 5 members working on this project had access to edit this board and we communicate with Slack (which Trello interfaces with). Additionally, Trello syncs with our team calendar, which also helps use coordinate lab work and stay on the same page with due dates. Trello also apparently syncs with GitHub and BitBucket (the Atlassian GitHub equivalent – Trello is an Atlassian product), although we’re not currently using this feature.

Trello 2

Figure 2: Within each card, we can include a summary of each experiment, a to-do list for the experiment, and attach files such as lab notebook pages, analysis, and figures. We use a shared Google Drive as the repository for all files, but Trello is a nice central area to refer to the status and key findings for each experiment. Personal information has been redacted.

As a compliment to Trello, I also use Todoist, which is a mega to-do list app (as the name implies). I don’t know about you, but I find the satisfaction of checking an item off a to-do list one of life’s great pleasures. In Todoist (see below), you can make multiple to-do lists for different tasks (some of my categories include various projects I’m working on, lab deadlines, class deadlines, re-occurring meetings, etc.) and each task is assigned a deadline, so it only shows up on my daily to-do list on the day it is relevant. Todoist also syncs with Google Calendar and iCal, so my to-do list items show up on my calendar as well, so I can plan around big (and small) deadlines that aren’t a calendar event. Todoist also lets you rank the urgency of various tasks, lets you tag tasks into categories, and tracks your accomplishments over time, in case you are interested and make weekly charts of what you’ve completed. Not that I do that…Also, you can share to-do lists with collaborators and assign different tasks to different collaborators.

Todoist

Figure 3: This is what the Todoist interface looks like on Mac (personal information redacted). As you can see, you can create various projects, and within each project, assign various tasks with due dates. For any given day, you can see which tasks are assigned for that day and which project they belong to. 

Time Management:

As graduate students, we often have more work than hours in the day. For me, the constant pressure to always be doing more has been challenging to combat, and at some points, mentally debilitating. I’ve tried to address this by tracking my time and letting myself feel okay about stopping work at 40 hours. A wise former graduate student told me this trick, and I’ve found it helps me stay focused when working and feel okay about not working. Of course, sometimes I work much more than 40 hours and other times, take time off.

However, I keep track of my hours using toggl, an old-fashioned timer for the 21st century. You can create “projects” and track the time spent on various tasks on the desktop or web interface, as well as their sleek app (see below). Toggl also generates weekly, monthly, yearly, (or any time you want) reports of your work, as well as the tasks you’ve worked on and how much time you spent. You can also use toggl to track billable hours, if you’ve got a side hustle. I use their weekly and monthly report feature to reflect on how I am spending my time and make adjustments.

Toggl

Figure 4: This is what the toggl desktop interface (right) and toggl online summary report looks like. As you can see, you can assign each task to a project, as well as a tag (for experiments, I used tags for each individual experiment number that corresponds to my lab notebook so I know how long each experiment takes me). Online, I can track how much I worked per day, as well as what tasks I spent my time on. This is what my last week looked like.

However, despite capping my obligatory work week at 40 focused hours, I don’t want to compromise what I’m able to accomplish. One helpful tool for time management, especially when working on heavy focus tasks like reading or writing, is the Pomodoro technique. Our lab has weekly/bi-weekly 2-hour writing sessions where we use this method. Essentially, you work really hard for a set amount of time (such as 25 minutes), followed by a short break (such as 5 minutes). These sessions are timed and seem to help us feel more productive and focused.

Finally, I think it’s important to note when you are working. Everyone is productive at different times, and it’s important to be aware of when you are most productive, creative, or hungry and plan your time around your natural rhythms. For example, I am very good about analytical tasks that require a lot of focus in the mornings, intellectually useless in the afternoons (optimal for mechanical tasks!), and very creative at night. Therefore, I reserve the mornings for reading papers and working on analysis, doing lab work in the afternoon, and writing in the evening.

Goal setting:

Knowing how you’re spending your time is much less important than feeling empowered about what you’re spending your time doing. I attended a great workshop earlier this year at the infamous Stanford d.school addressing vision and goal setting in scientific research. I got two main things out of that workshop about goal setting. First, goals can be ambitious, but must be broken down into actionable chunks. Second, goals must be prioritized by importance and urgency. One way to do that is to use an Eisenhower Matrix: take all goals for a set amount of time (i.e. a week, and break down each item into importance and urgency items in order to decide what to tackle immediately, what to tackle later, and what to delegate. I make yearly, monthly, and weekly goals with this method and revisit the goals at the end of each period, as well as compare my goal list with how I spent my time with the toggl reports. The Passion Planner has great built-in tools for goal setting as well, which was why I loved using mine for so long. One feature I especially appreciated was making space for personal, as well as professional, goals each week.

Electronic Lab Notebooks:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I used an electronic lab notebook (ELN). Although this is a topic for another blog post, I do want to briefly mention that I have found using an electronic lab notebook very helpful to replicate experiments, keep data organized, and collaborate. I use Microsoft OneNote (totally free!) on an iPad with an Apple Pencil and keep both sterile by putting the iPad into a gallon freezer bag and the Apple Pencil in a Ziplock sandwich bag, spraying both down with ethanol. Yes, the Apple Pencil works fine through two plastic bags. Another free (for academics) electronic lab notebook system many like is Benchling. Although not widely adopted by ecologists, Benchling is well organized and has great support for molecular biology.

Even if you choose not to use any of these free apps, I hope this blog post was helpful in terms of thinking about productivity and project management. Even though I’m not a Facebook, Google, or Apple employee, going to school in the heart of Silicon Valley has encouraged me to embrace the campy-ness of innovation in my lab and life.