How to Plan Ahead to Get the Most Out of Your Time in the Lab

A scientist who plans ahead for research and experiments

Managing multiple research projects at a time can be overwhelming. Without careful advanced planning and effective time management skills, you may find yourself missing meetings, deadlines, or spending too much time on minor tasks.

Making a to-do list on a regular basis is one of the most effective ways to increase your productivity in the lab. Take a few minutes at the end of each week to plan for the following week and identify the highest priority tasks. Similarly, at the end of each day, take a few minutes to review and adjust your plans for the following day. This approach will give you the most productive start to each day and make sure you are on track to meet your goals. Here are some tips for planning your time in the lab:

  • Remember to take into account deadlines, meetings, classes and seminars, in addition to your experiments.
  • Include task duration to ensure you give yourself enough time to complete your tasks and avoid underestimating your workload.
  • Turn off email notifications and instead set specific times to read and reply to emails. Pro-Tip: Schedule email time for when you naturally feel less productive such as after lunch.
  • Schedule short breaks to recharge your body and mind. Pro-Tip: Incubation periods are a great time for a quick break.
  • If you are teaching, set aside specific time each week to focus on those duties, including lesson planning, grading and meeting with students.
  • Schedule time (or use down times during experiments) to keep updated on key publications in your field. Pro-Tip: Subscribe to publication alerts (e.g. NCBI) or curation services (e.g. Connexon) to save time finding papers relevant to your research.

Research lab templates, checklists and spreadsheets

Planning Template

Whether you prefer a hand-written to-do list or an electronic version, there are lots of different software and template options available. We’ve also developed a planning template that works for our scientists. See if it works for you.

Try these additional suggestions to maximize your efficiency during experiments:

  • Plan ahead for all experimental conditions, including controls. This step may help reduce the number of experiments you have to re-run in the future.
  • Use your weekly or daily planning time to check that you have all the necessary reagents for your upcoming experiments. Check out our tips for reagent inventory management to make sure you never get stuck without critical reagents.
  • Always book time on shared equipment (e.g. flow cytometer) in advance. If possible, you may want to schedule some extra time time in case your experiment does not go exactly as planned.
  • Try to make effective use of incubation periods. Stagger your experimental conditions wherever possible to minimize down time or allow you to perform other tasks while you wait. Pro-Tip: Incubation periods are a great time for routine lab tasks such as making stock reagents or racking pipet tips.