How to Prioritize and Manage Your Research Projects

How long is your to-do list? Having a seemingly never-ending list of experiments, deadlines, and other tasks to complete can feel overwhelming. That daunting to-do list can actually be counterproductive and make it difficult for you to decide which jobs to prioritize and tackle first.

Effective prioritization and management of your research projects will help make your workload more manageable, boost your productivity, and maximize the impact of your efforts. To get started, follow these seven steps for managing your projects.

1. Set SMART Goals

Working toward a goal can keep you motivated and productive as you execute your projects. Before you begin prioritizing your tasks, set SMART goals for yourself:

  • Specific. What exactly do you want to accomplish?
  • Measurable. How do you specifically measure success?
  • Attainable. Do you believe you can achieve it?
  • Realistic. Is it possible to achieve?
  • Time-sensitive. When is the deadline?

2. Create a Comprehensive List

The first step to managing your work is creating a comprehensive list of all your projects.

  • Start by writing down every existing and new project that you can think of, even those that may just be ideas at this time.
  • Next, break down your projects and large tasks into the smaller tasks that are required to complete the project.
  • Now you are ready to begin prioritizing your tasks.

3. Prioritize Strategically

Rank the items in your list from high to low priority to help you focus on executing high priority tasks first. Here are three criteria that you can use to help you determine priority.

  • Urgency
    Certain projects such as grant or fellowship applications will have firm deadlines that have to be met. Write down those deadlines in your list and ensure that you give yourself enough time to complete the tasks before they are due.
  • Importance
    Think about the potential impact of your tasks. For example, if you aim to answer a particular research question, the most important experiments are those that can result in data to directly address the question.

Nouraiz from ETH Zurich mentioned this tip for prioritizing experiments:

Think about results (figures in papers) in advance. And perform only those experiments that are required without investing useful time on other irrelevant experiments.

  • Effort
    Some tasks take longer than others to complete. One way to keep your to-do list from growing out of control is to tackle quick and easy tasks as soon as you receive them. Take this approach carefully to ensure that quick tasks are not getting in the way of accomplishing your larger but more important ones.

Rank your tasks according to these criteria, then prioritize those tasks with high urgency, high importance, and low effort. Deprioritize or reconsider those with low urgency, low importance, and high effort.

4. Align with Supervisor and Key Collaborators

Communication is crucial for effective project management, especially with your supervisor and any lab members involved in your projects. Ask your supervisor for advice on your priorities. Once your priorities are set, inform any individuals that you work very closely with. Ensuring alignment will help strengthen collaborations and avoid any unexpected roadblocks in the future.

5. Create an Action Plan

Now that you have clear priorities and goals, it’s time to create an action plan. Take a few minutes at the end of each week to plan for the next one by creating a weekly to-do list. Similarly, at the end of each day, take a few minutes to review and adjust your plans for the following day. This approach will help keep you focused in the day ahead while giving you the flexibility to adapt to the state of your research. As you plan, be mindful of what you can actually accomplish in a day—it’s easy to overestimate.

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6. Execute with Focus and Quality

  • Focus
    Your to-do list may seem overwhelming, but if you focus on one task at a time, you may be surprised by how much you can accomplish.

See what Clare from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre had to say:

...I have learned to prioritize the most important experiments. Once you are in the middle of one experiment, focus, and don’t get distracted by your other thoughts. Doing the most important experiment properly and getting results is much more efficient than doing three experiments without getting good results.

In other words, resist the temptation to multitask. Many people work on multiple 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

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  • Quality
    Concentrate on quality instead of quantity. Rather than rushing to complete more experiments as fast as you can, focus on doing experiments properly so you don't have to redo them later. This also applies to other tasks such as data analysis.

Israel from the University of British Columbia shared this tip:

One of the senior students in my department gave me what I think is the most useful advice in grad school. He told me to save no effort and always make figures that are publication-quality. Following that advice, I can put up presentation slides together, as well as posters for conferences in no time.

7. Review and Improve

As you complete your week, take a few minutes to reflect on the progress that you have made. Consider whether there are any opportunities for improvement by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Should I shift my priorities based on the results I’ve obtained?
  • Should I add or remove tasks from my list?
  • Can my procedures be performed more efficiently next time?
  • Can the tools I’m using keep up with my goals?
  • Is it time to rethink my tools and technologies to allow for greater productivity?
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  1. Watson JM and Strayer DL. (2010) Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychon Bull Rev 17(4): 479-85.