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How to Systemize Your Workflow

Ideas for making better use of your time.

October 2, 2016

Anjali Gopal is a PhD student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Bioengineering Program. You can follow her on Twitter at @anjali_gopal.




A couple of times a week, I need to perform an experiment where I apply voltage across a hydrogel and douse it with UV light. My lab is spread across several rooms, and in order to isolate the rest of the lab members from unnecessary exposure to potentially hazardous equipment--such as the aforementioned UV light-- this particular experiment is usually done in one of the smaller, side rooms.


So, a couple of times a week, I’d gather up my ingredients (buffer, lysis reagent, cell samples) and my materials (microscope slides, goggles, UV shield, timer) and trudge over to the side room. Sometimes I’d forget one thing or another -- but usually it’s no big fuss. Since I do this experiment about twice a week every week, usually I’ll just remember what I missed, and run back and grab it. Right?


But how much time am I really losing when I do this? Suppose I do perform two sets of these experiments every week for the duration of my PhD. Across four years, fifty weeks per year, twice per week, I’d end up doing this experiment approximately 400 times. Suppose it took me approximately twenty-five minutes to prep for this experiment each time, and five minutes to run back and forth to pick up something I had forgotten. That’s approximately 12000 minutes -- or 200 hours -- or 8.3 days. I’ll have spent the equivalent of 8.3 days preparing for a single set of rote experiments. That’s a week of vacation time I could have taken.


So, one day, I decided to make a kit. This kit has most of the non-perishable materials I’d need to use (timer, tweezers, gloves) and a list of all the other perishable materials or shared materials I’d need to collect. This effectively cut down my prep time from twenty-five minutes to ten minutes. (For those of you wondering, the total cost of making the kit was a one-time fee of about 30 minutes.)


It might seem as though the moral of the story is something like ‘make lists’ or ‘learn how to prepare better.’ While all of those things are helpful, I think the moral can be encompassed by a better term: learn how to systemize.


Systemizing isn’t only about lists; it’s about knowing how to move smoothly through your environment so that it costs you minimal time, attention, and energy. A good example of systemization is putting your phone on your nightstand every evening so that you’ll know exactly where it is in the morning. (A bad example of systemization is putting your phone on your morning to-grab list, but not knowing where, exactly, you put it.)


A lot of times, graduate students will argue that because our tasks are so varied and diverse, because research is so unpredictable, because the very nature of good scholarly work is its novelty, nothing we do can actually be systemized effectively.  But I would argue that this is exactly where we need to systemize: we need to systemize so that we can spend minimal time on the rote things (and I know all of us have them!) and spend the majority of our energy and cognitive cycles on the issues that actually matter.


So, how do we actually go about doing that?


1. Identify repeated tasks.
The main prompt I use for systemizing my workflow is to identify things that seem repetitive. These include things like creating the same report template each week, searching for just-published papers about your dissertation topic, or the aforementioned prepping for the same experiment every week. If something is being repeated, we can probably identify some way to make it easier, faster, or make the task disappear altogether.


2. See if you can automate.
Automation is the best form of systemization, because then it lowers the amount of time you have to spend on the task to zero. For instance, a simple way of automating literature-searching is by setting up Google Scholar Alerts. Similarly, if you’re writing a report each week and need to format it the same way, see if you can store the template somewhere (or create a script to generate the template for you). Of course, this is not to say that you can automate everything. For instance, I can’t assume that all of my literature-hunting needs will be taken care of Google Scholar Alerts. But at least I’ve minimized the part of my work that involves manually searching for new papers related to my field. Now I can spend more time actually reading those papers.

3. If you can’t automate, set up routines.
My lab has a good routine set up for making hydrogels: while I can’t automate making hydrogels, at least I know exactly what routine to follow and where the ingredients are stored. The ingredients are shared materials, so they are dispersed throughout the lab, but it’s extremely efficient for me to go to the various locations and pick up everything I need. Note that this is different from hunting for things I need, because I’m not spending time or energy wondering where things might be, or who took them. If you can find ways to store things in certain places, and smooth your movement between them, then that’s an excellent system.

(A final alternative to automation is outsourcing; this is generally a great tip for folks working in industry, and generally less doable for graduate students.)


4. Notice what’s grabbing your attention.
Sometimes when I’m doing an experiment, I’ll notice I get annoyed by something -- like, “Gee, it’s really hard to fit this aspirating pipette into the vacuum tube.” It might seem valiant to ignore that annoyance and keep on pushing (and in this case, it probably is) -- but another thing I could do is make note of that annoyance and try to deal with the problem that’s behind it. If it’s hard to put the aspirating pipette into the tube, could I get bigger tubing? Or smaller pipettes? These might seem like trivial inconveniences, but for repeated tasks, these trivial inconveniences often add up -- and figuring out how to problem solve more creatively will generally never do you harm.

5. And yes, lists are still helpful.
The absolute worst way to deal with attention is to keep things on your mind. I make lists for standard things I know I won’t get around to for a while and will forget about otherwise -- but I will also make lists for things that I know I’ll remember, just so I can be assured that I don’t merely have to rely on my memory. Usually, this helps reduce stress.




GradHacker Jason B. Jones previously discussed why it’s important to think about how you work. He argues that we’ll never have a chance to get everything we want done, and so we should be more intentional with the time that we have.


I agree; and what’s more, I think that we can do better than just identifying critical tasks. Systemizing helps ensure that I’m not spending more time on a task that I absolutely need to. It lowers the amount of aversion I have towards a task, and puts me in a better mood when I work. Ultimately, systemizing allows me to modify my environment so that it can work for me; and that even if the time savings are minimal, the energy savings are not.


What are some ways you’ve been able to systemize your workflow?

[Photo by Flickr user Sharples, used under a Creative Commons license.]


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