Tuesday, January 7, 2014


I hesitate to write about this (for reasons that will become clear), and it may disappear in a day or two if I change my mind. But I need to acknowledge the problem "out loud" so that I can hold myself accountable to the fixing of said problem. So here it is: I have been extremely unfocused at work for the past few months. I'm getting my work done, but way slower than previously, and its getting done in short quick bursts, with many hours of unproductive time in between. I feel like I'm doing 100% of my work in about 70% of my time...which is a lot of time to go wasted, and a lot of productivity unmet.

My work days are so fragmented. Some of it is the nature of the beast---I am responsible for several different projects, clinical and research-related. I am still working with my former mentor, I have new mentors, I have a technician. I have clinic and faculty meetings, and lab meetings, and phone calls. But who doesn't?  I can't eliminate that from my day, those are essential.

Like my 4 year old, I've found that I don't handle transitions well (though I am happy to report I haven't had a screaming fit or thrown anything). Instead of jumping back into it after being interrupted, I putter around for a while. Every time I finish a task, in fact, I waste some time before I start the next one. I think short breaks are actually good for productivity but the key to that is short. I've tried various things: Pomodoro technique, leechblock software, accountability partners at work...but everything has been short lived. I keep getting pulled into the same spiral of time wasting, then shame, then more time wasting, more shame...

I was baffled by my behavior for a while---I've always been extremely internally motivated at work (if not in the rest of life) and slacking off just wasn't something that I did. I kept blaming it on sleep-deprivation, or stress at home, or being sick. Yes, all of those probably didn't help. But I now realize that the underlying reason for my lack of drive is that I don't love what I'm doing these days.

I love the science behind it, but I haven't even been doing science. I've been dealing with administrative B.S., IRBs and budgets and monitoring boards and deciding which of 50 different blood collections tubes I need to buy and so on.  I like the medicine involved in my new clinical program, but not the enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work and sweet-talking I have to do to set up the clinic space, and the computer system, and make sure the schedulers understand my plan, and get all my collaborators on board. The countless meetings and more emails and more phone calls. Its not easy to get caught up in the flow of this kind of work, the same way I can with writing grants or analyzing data. Yet getting this done will get me the data to analyze that will lead to writing of grants and papers. I need to get it moving and quickly!

Every job has unpleasant aspects, but if I want to really be driven, there also have to be some pleasant and rewarding aspects. I'm not sure how to handle this---I've got more IRB addendums to execute, lots and lots of meetings and ordering decisions and budget negotiations to get through before I can even begin recruiting for my studies.

I've thought of three paltry strategies that may help:
    1) Planning my time better so that I have a set list of tasks to execute each day. This involves really thinking through how long something will take so that I have sufficient (but not overwhelming) incentive to keep going to get through my list. I especially need to do this on Fridays. Monday mornings are often the worst---I have great intentions, but without a clear place to begin, I flounder.
   2) Make sure that plan includes at least SOME amount of actual "science" each week---data analysis, hands on bench work, reviewing new literature, thinking through experiments, discussing results/experiments with colleagues. Something that will inspire me to want to keep doing what I'm doing.
   3) Use planning to minimize transitions as much as possible. Schedule meetings back to back. Set specific times of day for phone calls and emails.

I'll report on my progress as part of my resolutions every 2 weeks.


  1. My belief for me is still sleep-dep. Because when I caffeine it up (without going overboard to jittery), all of a sudden the focus is back. Remembering to take my vit. D supplement also helps.

    But I'm totally leech-blocking more websites (including this one) if I can't keep myself from web-surfing except at planned break-times.

    I do have to say though that I totally feel your pain with the IRB and in my case the grant people. It seems like when I started here they were doing their jobs well, but these past couple years I spend more time fixing mistakes with them or dealing with complicated new rules than doing a whole lot of other things. It's irritating and full of hassle and hurts productivity. And can't be delegated anywhere near as much as I'd like it to be.

  2. I've had a big problem wasting time on the internet lately myself. And when I promise that I won't do it today, I swear I waste even MORE time than usual. Gah!!

    You know what I hate most of all though? The 10AM meeting. Juuuust early enough so you can't do anything before it, and just late enough that when it's done all you can think about is lunch. So basically the 10AM meeting kills my whole morning, which is the most productive part of my day.

    I have found that keeping a running to do list helps me stay more focused. The only issue I run into is when things take way longer than I think they will, or when I discover some problem with the data and have to go get it fixed, and the whole thing goes to crap.

  3. Yes! I totally understand. I love my bedside work, but I absolutely despise all the politics, the ass-kissing, and the dealing with people who think they know what they are talking about, but really have no clue. I try so hard to focus on the good parts of my work, but most days, I just feel frustrated and unmotivated. I tend to procrastinate and delay until I have so many tasks piled up, I have no choice but to get at it. And then I frantically race through everything- a strategy that allows me to look very, very busy, so I can generally avoid playing political games. Sigh... it is such a shame to spend time and money going to school for a career you believe you will love, only to find out that it's not exactly what you thought it would be. No wonder so many people make mid-life career changes.

    I sincerely hope your plan works to help you focus, and bring back some of the joy of what you do. I have been trying to do the same, but have only succeeded in complicating things for myself. I really need to win the lottery... lol.

  4. I think number 2 on your list is key. You have to make space for the part of your job you love and insist on it getting on your schedule first. It's not that you don't have to do the non-fun stuff (though there may be ways to compress it - always worth exploring) but if you wait to do the part of your job you love after all the other stuff happens it may never happen. And then life kind of sucks.

    1. What she said! Also, can you delegate some of the admin tasks (like choosing and ordering collection tubes, etc) to a lab tech or a student? It might actually be good experience for them to handle little stuff like that and gives you more time to focus on The Science.

  5. Hi Ana, I am a fairly regular reader but first-time commenter. I have been in a situation very similar to yours (I'm a professor in the health sciences), and I've found all three of those strategies to be extremely helpful. #2 is absolutely key for motivation/attitude, and I've found that even 20-30 minutes a day pays large dividends. #s 1 and 3 have been surprisingly helpful in daily workflow. Be sure to stay flexible and forgiving with yourself on all of these (i.e., even if you make the to-do list "realistic," things may still take longer than you expect, and just adjust and don't beat yourself up for it; also, some days may be so crammed with admin. junk that there's truly no time for science, but start right up again the next day). Good luck--these same strategies have been so helpful for me, and I'm sure they'll help you too!

  6. It's funny, I was thinking about your "wasting time on the internet" issue, and wondering why it was happening. Now I know! I think your solution is a really good one. I know 1 is really hard for me--it's simple enough in principle, but actually figuring it out...well, I'd need an engineering degree and one in management. Gantt charts! Easy to imagine! Hard to execute.

    I think 2 is really wise. I remember when I got here I went to some workshop on being productive as a faculty member and one bit of advice was to do at least 15 minutes of writing a day. Of course, much of my job is not writing, but if I include data analysis and project planning and whatnot, it's a useful bit of advice. I tend to forget to do it. But it's food for the soul, while all the other stuff is the opposite. I guess I'm just agreeing with you in a really long-winded way.

    And this post reminds me to really protect my research blocks. It's so easy to let them get eaten by meetings, but I vow to do better this semester.