Short-term Organizational Tools for Scientists

by Meghan Barrett


A tomato timer, the symbol of the Pomodoro technique. Photo by Erato a Italian Wikinews (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A big part of a student’s daily work is organizing their professional life – managing tasks and effectively using their time each day to meet long-term goals. But, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, little in our training prepares us for this critical, but difficult, task. Below, I describe tools and share resources and advice related to short-term (daily/weekly task) organization that I’ve picked up in my first three years of grad school. This is a follow up to my previous post on tools/resources related to long-term organization that you can find here.

  1. Tools for Managing Time

One of the hardest things for me as a researcher, teaching assistant, student, and person is managing my time effectively. The first step in managing your time is knowing how you spend it – we often misjudge the amount of time spent on different tasks based on how appealing we find them. In addition, small pieces of time (ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there) often get whiled away on chatting with coworkers, checking FB, doodling absentmindedly – not bad things, but things that add up and can leave you with the feeling “where does my time go?”.

If you are really into knowing how you spend your time, Timular cubes can be a helpful way to understand where your time goes; a cheaper way to do this is to make your own cube and simply mark the time each time you switch to a new task for the day so you can total it all up at the end. Less fancy, and it takes more time to analyze, but this can help you be more intentional in how you spend your time and make you more aware of any time-wasting habits you want to nix.

The next step is how you choose to perform tasks given the time you have. For me, I prefer to use a paper scheduler that has every 15 minute period from 7 am to 10 pm blocked out. Since I’m bad at remembering to take breaks for things like eating when I’m working on something interesting, I schedule in time for coffee, lunch, etc. amongst class, meetings, and lab work. This also allows me to be disciplined about which tasks I work on (since I’m a perpetual procrastinator): it doesn’t matter if I’d be more interested in writing a Rapid Ecology post instead of doing my lab work, if lab work is in the scheduler, lab work is what I do. I usually schedule all my tasks for M-W on Sunday, then on W night schedule R and F based on what I haven’t finished M-W using my weekly ‘priorities’ list (see below section #4).

Another tool I’ve heard be really successful is the Pomodoro method, which works particularly well for people with lots of short chunks of time (sound like a grad student life?). This technique works via short bursts of productivity (say 25 focused minutes of writing) separated by short breaks (say 5 minutes); after a certain number of cycles (each cycle is called a Pomodoro), you can take a longer break before starting again. If you want to have more flexibility in what you work on, but need structure to help you actually spend time on it, this method may be for you.

  1. Tools for Avoiding Distractions

Another big component of effectively using your time is avoiding distractions. There’s the obvious – working in solitary spaces, putting your phone on silent and out of reach, etc. But what about avoiding internet distractions when you need to be using the internet for your work? Try the app called ‘Freedom’, which will lock you out of particular websites of your choosing for a time length of your choosing. No more Twitter for you, until your Freedom period is over! This pairs nicely with the Pomodoro technique.

There’s a similar app for your phone, if you really struggle with putting it down, called ‘Forest’ – it grows you a little forest for setting phone-free time limits and meeting them! Over time, you can plant new types of trees, etc. – and the app even partners with Trees for the Future to plant trees in real life. Looking at my little forest of phone-free time always makes me feel accomplished and even rewarded for staying away.

  1. Tools for Managing Personal and Professional Tasks

Okay, so how about actually managing tasks? There’s the classic pen-and-paper bullet journals and to-do lists, but I personally prefer online task-management (especially ones that allow me to share my task lists with others for collaborative work). Two great task-management systems are Habitica and Asana.

Habitica (for computer or phone) turns your individual task management into a game – you level up, gain new items and skills, go on quests to defeat procrastination-monsters, build a beastiary, etc all based on completing tasks. These tasks are broken into different categories: Habits, Dailies, and To-Dos. To-Dos are one-time tasks, and can have deadlines and numerous parts. But what sets Habitica apart from a regular to-do list are the other categories, aimed at helping you develop better habits and a more organized lifestyle. Habits are things you get ‘points’ for towards leveling up; for example, you could set a habit ‘take the stairs’ and each time you take the stairs you hit the “+” button and earn points. If you take the elevator, you hit the “-” button and are penalized. Similarly, there are ‘dailies’ (which can be every day or just days of your choosing). These can be things you want to do once a day – load the dishwasher, read a paper, go to the gym, or write in your journal. My favorite thing about Habitica is that it lends itself to managing your professional and personal tasks all in one place and can be a small, silly motivator for generating a better, more intentional lifestyle. You can also manage group-work (but have to pay a small monthly fee), or even join up with your real-life friends to go on quests and level up together for no cost.

Asana is more strict task-management, but is really excellent if you need to manage groups of people (say undergraduate researchers or collaborators). You can break down projects by task and assign tasks and deadlines to different people. There’s also a lot of ways to integrate other things into Asana (emails, etc) so I highly recommend for organizing group projects.

One last tool is Scrivener – a great task manager for writing papers, keeping all your notes and revisions organized, etc. This can be especially handy when paired with a paper-organizing system (Mendeley, Zotero, EndNote) like I discussed in my last post.

  1. To Do Lists that Don’t Overwhelm

In undergrad, to do lists were a fun and easy way to make myself feel like I was constantly accomplishing things. In grad school, that fun went away – my to do lists are scary long with really big and long-term tasks on them. I’ve found the best way to manage my to do list in grad school is not to list out everything that needs to be done to finish all my projects on one sheet, which would completely overwhelm me.

Instead, I set ‘project priorities’ for the week (for example: Mannitol Larval Data Analysis, Neuroecology Literature Review, and Design Conference Poster), then schedule out tasks of different sizes to help complete those larger projects. I allow myself 2 big tasks, 3 medium tasks, and 6 smaller tasks to help accomplish my top three ‘project priorities’ that week. This allows for plenty of time to accomplish the ‘things that come up’ (emails, meetings, grading, lab safety training) while still allowing me to chip away on longer-term projects.

Finally, every quarter, I evaluate what I want my biggest goals to be for the next three months. I am allowed only 5, and usually try for only three if I’m teaching. These are typically really ‘big picture’ things (finishing data collection or analysis, submitting a manuscript, etc). I post this on my blog for accountability and use it to generate my weekly priority lists; I also reflect on what went well and poorly in making these goals move when writing my next quarterly post to give myself a designated time and place for reflection, good or bad. Understanding what is or isn’t working for you, organizationally, is a process of constant revision as your life, and the kinds of tasks you complete, change. Having designated time to reflect can really help you narrow in on what’s working for you, what isn’t, and why.

  1. Accepting Feedback

One place where we can waste a lot of time is on receiving and implementing feedback. For me, receiving feedback on manuscripts drafts from my advisor was really overwhelming at times and I’d usually put the paper down for a week or two before trying to go through it all with a more level head. This ended up wasting a lot of really precious time and delaying time-to-publication. I recently picked up the book ‘Thanks for the Feedback’ by Stone and Heen. This book has really helped me work through how I receive feedback and what I do with it. Being in science, you receive a lot of feedback – it’s up to you to figure out how to use it, when to use it, what it means, and ultimately make that feedback work for you. This book was a great first step and has helped me save a lot of time.

I hope these two posts introduced you to some new systems and tools for managing long term and short term goals, and that one or two of these ‘new’ things works well for you! As always, this is not an exhaustive list – so please, please share your tactics and resources with us on Twitter or write a follow-up!

Author biography: Meghan Barrett is a graduate candidate earning her PhD in Biology and her MS in STEM Education. She studies insect neuroanatomy at Drexel University and enjoys a brief spot of science communication on Twitter, @Bee_Bytes, and on her website. She is a member of the editorial board for Rapid Ecology.

1 reply »

  1. Love it! Thank you so much for linking this to me! I already knew about the apps that lock you out of some websites and I’ve been using Forest a lot on my phone! Thank you again!