Eight Counter-Productive Habits that Researchers Should Break

Scientist Lab
You may have read our nine habits of a highly productive researcher and applied some of those principles in your own research. Aside from building good habits, it’s also important to break bad ones.

Stop these counter-productive habits that could be holding you back from moving your research and career forward.

1. Multitasking

Multitasking is one of the most counter-productive habits you can have. Many people work on many tasks simultaneously, believing that it helps them improve their performance. This is a false belief. They only feel efficient by multitasking. In fact, a study has found that only 2.5% of individuals show no performance decrements when multitasking.1

When you’re multitasking, you’re rapidly toggling between several tasks. Everytime you switch your primary task, your brain must abandon the previous task and adapt to the new task. You become less productive. So next time you’re thinking of running three experiments at the same time, think again.

Try this instead: Schedule one task at a time. Then obsess over doing that task effectively.

2. Putting Off Difficult Tasks

When difficult tasks come your way, it’s tempting to procrastinate working on them until closer to the deadline. This deliberate delay is counter-productive. You reduce the amount of time you have to complete the job. You may also be even busier than you are now and end up scrambling at the last minute to complete that task.

For example, you may be tempted to to put off grant writing until last minute. By doing this you may not be able to identify gaps early enough to perform preliminary experiments, or you may run out of time to proofread your writing.

Try this instead: Start difficult tasks early.

3. Saying “Yes” All the Time

You may have a supervisor who has a million of ideas for “extra” experiments that you should try. If you say “yes” every time to these extra work, you may run out of time to get the data you need for the paper or thesis you’re working on. You’ll be spread too thin and lose the ability to devote your energy to your priority research projects. Before you say “yes”, be sure to evaluate whether you have the desire and the bandwidth to accommodate the additional experiments.

Try this instead: Be honest and say “no” if you don’t have time to take on additional tasks.

Depending on the relationship you have with your supervisor, it can be scary to just say “no”. Instead, you can share what you’re currently working on and ask for their help to re-prioritize your current tasks in order to accommodate their request. Alternatively, you can simply ask whether you can put it on your list and get to it later when you’re a little less busy. For example, you can say, “Great idea! But my current experiments are taking all of my time right now. Could we revisit this next month?”


4. “Winging It”

In the midst of all the experiments, you may be tempted to jump from experiment to experiment without taking the time to thoroughly plan ahead or analyze data. “Winging it” is risky. Without thorough preparation, you may miss important controls in your experimental design or you may not even have the right reagents in stock. If you don’t analyze data from the experiment you’ve just completed, you may end up repeating flawed experimental procedures.

Try these instead:

5. Reading Emails as They Arrive

Pop-up email notifications are distracting. Seeing them makes you want to stop what you’re currently doing to read and respond to the email you just received. Some of us have a compulsive need to constantly check our inbox and can’t stand seeing more than zero unread emails.

This is a difficult habit to break because checking emails, much like checking your phone, is an easy way to procrastinate. Moreover, you can simply make the mental excuse that you’re being productive by checking your work email.

Try these alternatives:

  • Wait until the afternoon to read your emails
  • Schedule specific times during the day to respond to emails
  • Close your inbox to prevent distracting notifications
  • Turn off email notifications on your phone

6. Refusing to Ask for Help When You Need It

Pride hinders progress. At times it can feel like you should be able to figure everything out on your own—you’re a highly educated scientist after all. This way of thinking prevents progress. You may hesitate to ask for help from others with more expertise than you in certain techniques or knowledge area. You may spend hours on Google or reading papers trying to find the answers on your own, when you could just ask a postdoc in the lab next door. Remember, the worst thing that could happen is they’ll say, “no”.

Try this instead: Know when to ask for help. If you know someone with the right expertise, just ask them anyway. Even if you think you sort of know the answer.

7. Working Harder

We should all work hard. But If you’re already giving your all, trying to put in more effort is not sustainable and can be counter-productive. Let’s say you’re already working 45 hours per week, and then you realize how busy you really are. Your default reaction may be to sacrifice life outside the lab and start working 60 hours per week. You then risk becoming stressed or even burning out. You won’t be able to stay productive for long if you push yourself too hard.

Try this instead:

  • Work smarter instead of harder.
  • Take time to assess how you’re doing your work
  • Make your processes more efficient
  • Set boundaries between work time and personal time
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8. Resisting Change

Science is innovative and cutting edge. Does this mean scientists embrace innovation and live on the cutting edge? No. There’s a spectrum: Some scientists willingly adopt new technologies and challenge the status quo, and some are resistant to change and unwilling to adapt to new methods. Even though there are smarter, more efficient ways of getting the same thing done, this latter group prefers to stick to the old and more time-consuming ways because those ways have worked in the past.

Try this instead:

  • Learn about new and more efficient technologies
  • Ask if you can try new products in your own lab
  • Switch to smarter and more efficient procedures
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Build Good Productivity Habits

Aside from breaking bad habits, it’s important to build good ones. If you haven’t already, adopt these nine habits of a highly productive researcher >


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References

  1. Watson JM and Strayer DL. 2010. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychon Bull Rev 17(4): 479-85.