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Nine Habits of a Highly Productive Researcher

82% of scientists surveyed indicated that they sometimes feel overwhelmed at work. This is not surprising—research is hard and many scientists are juggling multiple projects at the same time. Feeling overwhelmed can leave you blankly staring at your to-do list trying to decide what task you should be tackling next. You may find yourself defaulting to completing menial tasks and other forms of procrastination. That's when productivity drops.

Yet we all know of star scientists who seem to always get everything done. How do they do it?

Build these nine habits into your routine to become a more productive researcher. You'll make sure your research projects, and your career, keep moving forward.

Start Early

Sometimes a project comes your way with a deadline that is still far away. You think you have plenty of time to finish it later. Beware! Time goes by fast, and you may be even more busy later than you are now. By pushing the task to "later" you may end up scrambling at the last minute to complete it.

Getting in the habit of starting right away may help you tackle tasks more efficiently. For example, writing a thesis, papers, or grants tend to be the tasks that researchers keep putting off until later. Productive researchers start writing early. Even if you don't have all the data ready yet, starting early can help you identify gaps and additional experiments that could take your paper or grant from good to great.

Plan Ahead

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.

Read more planning tips for researchers >

Start with the Task You Do Not Want to Do

Sometimes there are tasks that you really dread doing. Perhaps you find them challenging and frustrating. Perhaps they take a long time to complete or just bore you.

Start with the most difficult tasks instead of putting them off until the end of the day. For example, start with your most complicated experiment, or work on writing a grant application that you're finding challenging.

Starting with the task you don't want to do ensures you make progress on them, and can free up the rest of your day for more exciting work to avoid a mid-day drop in your motivation.

Finish What You Start

Can you complete a task effectively all at once? If so, do it. Putting a task that you've started on hold makes it easier for you to procrastinate or even forget about its deadline. The incomplete task can also linger in your mind, and cause unnecessary stress.

Complete the task or delegate it right away, so you can check it off your to-do list, and free your mind for other tasks. For example, if you can write a conference abstract in one go, then just get it done.

Set Goals and Reward Yourself

Working towards a goal can keep you motivated and productive. Get in the habit of setting SMART goals:

  • 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?

If your goal is too big (has a large scope or will take a long time to complete), break it down into milestones, and reward yourself for achieving those milestones. For example, if your goal is to submit a research paper 18 months from now, you can first break it down to completing each set of experiments in specific timeframes.

Reward yourself for achieving a goal. The reward can be as simple as your favourite snack or just reflecting on a job well done. This will positively reinforce your productivity.

Find an Accountability Partner

Being held accountable helps you commit to your goals, and stay motivated to achieving them. One of the best ways to set yourself up for success, is to find an accountability partner. Do you have a trustworthy and supportive colleague? Promise them that you'll write one page of your thesis per day, and ask them to check up on your progress. You don't want to let a friend down, so you'll end up working more efficiently with less procrastination.

Prioritize

You have a lot to do. Sometimes it’s not possible to complete everything without sacrificing quality or your personal life. You have to prioritize. Which task will help you achieve your goals? Which ones are most urgent and important? Perhaps it’s in your best interest to let go of the less important tasks or to ask for help.

Limit Distractions

Distractions are everywhere: your smartphone, email notifications or even the chatter of loud coworkers. Productive researchers know to eliminate these distractions. Here are some ideas:

  • Put your smartphone out of sight. Keep it in your drawer or your bag.
  • Close your email tab in your browser. Set a time in your schedule to answer emails.
  • Wear headphones and listen to music or white noise to tune out loud conversations.

For researchers, these tips can be very helpful when writing theses, papers or grants.

Take Care of Yourself

Many junior researchers fall into the trap of working harder and longer hours at the cost of their personal well-being. Over time, this leads to mental fatigue, and even a burn out. Make sure you have a long, successful, and productive research career by taking care of yourself.

Studies have shown that taking frequent breaks can help improve productivity 1,2. Eating, exercising, and sleeping well will also help your focus and creativity. Taking care of yourself will keep your cognitive functions in top shape for more strategic thinking. You will find yourself completing your tasks in smarter, more efficient ways.

Longer hours doesn't mean better results. Keep that in mind.


These habits can help you tackle your workload more efficiently. But building lasting habits is more challenging than it seems. It's easier to fall back to the normal ways of doing things. Make new habits stick by focusing on one habit at a time, setting reminders, and rewarding yourself for following through.

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Break Bad Habits

Aside from building new good habits, it's important to break bad ones. In a research lab, you can get in the habit of using existing technologies and protocols that had been established in the lab long before you even got there. Sometimes there are smarter technologies or protocols that you can use instead. Break out of old habits, and start finding more efficient alternative protocols and technologies now.



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References

  1. Henning RA et al. (1997). Frequent short rest breask from computer work: effects on productivity and well-being at two field sites. Ergonomics 40(1):78-91.
  2. Ariga A and Lleras A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition 118(3):493-40.