Transferably Yours: Masterful Multitasking


What's the rush? You have at least 3 years to complete your PhD. But, be warned--you can't cram for this degree in the final year! I've recently watched a fellow PhD student frantically trying to finish writing in the last few days of his fourth year. It's not that this person didn't put in the hours. He clearly had an active 3 years and kept himself very busy. But a high level of activity does not necessarily equate to a high number of useful results. Had he been taught how to conduct highly efficient research and how to work smarter, from the outset, he may already have had his photo taken in a floppy graduation hat. The trick is to dream up the 'clincher': the feasible experiment with the most meaningful and informative output. But even if the 'clincher' evades your notice, there is still a lot you can do to increase your productivity.

Have you ever wanted to ask an experienced postdoc in your lab how they manage to do five different things in parallel without getting ruffled? If you are feeling frustrated at your own inability to work at the postdoc level of competence, or doubt that you can ever complete your thesis on time, read on. Of course, there's no quick fix to successful multitasking: The best way to become truly efficient at anything is practising it day-in, day-out for months. But understand and implement a few simple principles and you will come to experience the quiet 'rush' you get from knowing you are 'spinning plates' in the lab.

Not surprisingly, the first step to successful multitasking is getting really organised. If you don't know exactly where to find your own stuff, you'll waste no end of time tracking down an experimental protocol or previous set of results. However you choose to organise your things, make sure you can locate almost anything you want at the drop of a hat. Aim to find the information quickly and get back to adding value to your thesis with a minimum loss of momentum. The watchwords for your filing system are 'labelled' and 'accessible'.

We all need stocks and supplies, be it laboratory consumables or CD-ROMs to hold all your files. Make sure you have plenty of everything you need. Getting plenty means you avoid wasting time constantly replenishing your stocks. When planning an experiment, make a definitive list of all the stuff you need and then track down where you can get hold of it. This may take longer than the experiment itself, but efficiency wizards know the central importance of advance preparation, and they find what they need well in advance. This avoids unnecessary delays caused by a single missing component on the day of the experiment.

But, beware of wasting time, money, and effort trying to cover every possible eventuality. A good multitasker waits until the first possible moment the decision to do an experiment can be made with certainty, and only then starts to prepare for it. In the meantime, of course, they are doing a whole host of other things that they know will certainly, or almost certainly, need to be done.

Constantly reappraise whether each intended activity is worth doing, or should be shelved. To do this you'll need to keep focused on your project goals in the face of seemingly endless possible activities. I know how easy it is to get sidetracked--I wasted several months of my PhD trying to prove a point. My own doggedness caused me to pursue one experimental approach almost to the exclusion of everything else. I was saved from this dark, lonely tunnel by an offer of help from an overseas lab. They had solved my problem by adopting a different approach--one I had already dismissed as too difficult. My advice is to mentally prepare yourself to drop months of work if you discover a better way to achieve your aims. And to discover a better way, you'll have to keep an open mind, eyes, and ears.

By careful written planning, you can pack a lot more into a day than you can possibly achieve by thinking on your feet. Plan the next day's activities at the end of each day while it is still fresh in your mind. You'll avoid having to get out of bed in the early hours to note things down that you might otherwise forget! You may feel your lab book is sufficient for your needs, but keep a diary to remind you what's happening next. Gantt charts (see figure) are an excellent way to visualize how much work you can fit in. They work best for longer term planning over weeks or months.

OK, so much for getting organized, but what about the sharp end of multitasking? When the pressure's really on in the lab, it's good to rely on a multifunction alarm timer. Get a wristwatch with a timer function or timer that you can clip onto your lab coat--you'll forget to take a normal stop-clock with you when you set off down the corridor. Countdown alarms work better than stopwatches as the latter need you to remember to look at them. Set an alarm for a few minutes before each activity is due to end. As a check on this discipline, you can try to remain mentally aware of all your various tasks, but simply ticking items off your task list in the order you decided to do them is the best way to keep on track.

When learning to multitask, don't try to tackle too much too soon. To begin with, it's much better to do one thing at a time, and do it really well. You can practice multitasking on things that don't really matter if they overrun (lest you forget about them). When you are more confident, try pushing your luck by running two experiments in parallel, then three, and so on. Remember, safety comes first, so only attempt what is safe and build in enough slack time to do each experiment slowly enough to do it well. If you have to rush it, you're taking on too much and it will probably end in disaster.

And finally, when you get a good result, ensure that your experimental output is up to thesis quality. If you don't, you'll only have to repeat the experiment later when you'll have more important things to worry about--like writing up!

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