Thursday, January 06, 2011

a new skill set

managing my day
it's so interesting to me: when i was working 80-hour weeks on the wards or in the intensive care units during residency, managing my time didn't require much thought. every minute was precious, so there was no room for questions about motivation or whether i 'felt' like doing something at any given time.

if i wanted to work out -- and i did (marathon training while in the PICU? well, why not?) -- then i had to do it in the few windows of time that i had. if i wanted to write this blog -- and obviously, i did -- i had to crank my posts out in the wee hours (nothing like a rousing meme at 4:40 in the morning! huh . . .).

i learned a lot about managing time and planning ahead during those days. however, one sad result is that my skills do not translate as well to a (much) less structured schedule. in fact, in some ways the experience may have been detrimental, because residency conditions you to grab rest and free time whenever it presents itself. after all, with those hours, it's a matter of survival!

but you can see how that mindset might become problematic when all of the sudden, your schedule is a wide open frontier of 'research time' . . . and i believe this is why i am struggling a bit now. it's not that my work ethic sucks or that i don't want to get anything done; it's just that this shift isn't that easy!

don't get excited: "hope valley day care" = volunteer project, not a personal errand!

as you can see above, i am attempting in my own nerdy way to give my time some structure. i also have emailed my PI because i would like to start doing some actual, hands-on research -- but i honestly need some concrete suggestions on what to start on, and someone to help (re-)teach me some of the ropes, as i haven't touched a pipette in about 5 years.

i'm not complaining about this research time -- no, not one bit. i am thrilled to have the chance to do things at my own pace. and hopefully, i will start to gain a time management/productivity skill set that works in this realm, too! if you have a 'wide open' schedule that you've learned to manage well, share your secrets!. phD students and graduates, i'm talking to you.

pre-prenatal nutrition advice update
i have gotten some great questions from you all to send to heather! i will compile and send them off to her tomorrow, so email me today if there is anything you have always wanted to know about eating for pre-gestation.

things that are awesome
alycia's 2011 inspiration board! love this.

angeliki's post, which inspired my thoughts above.

(never home)maker. how was i not reading this blog!?

free dave farmar podcasts

yoga is growing on me!

this bag, which graced the cover of anthro's january catalog.

so linear and pretty and . . . blue.



workout: 75 minute yoga class @ blue point. this class was better than the last one but still not as fun as the first (i miss those plank handstands!). i really do like yoga to be challenging -- since i am doing it as my only workout on some days now, i want to shake and sweat a little.

no cooking night: because the kitchen was still stocked with leftovers! that thai chili is a gift that keeps on giving . . .

reading: no formal reading b/c i got home after 6:30 pm (from yoga).


  1. As a former PhD student in the molecular bio field, the "free time" of the program was something I definitely struggled with as well. (I left after a year and a half to become a high school science teacher... MUCH more fulfilling for me)

    I am also a huge fan of lists, and I would start each day with one, scheduling my day by half hour or so blocks. (PCR ruled my life back then, which was fairly convenient for getting other stuff done!)

    Another trick for me was scheduling meetings with my PI more frequently (1-2 a week) than most other students. It gave me a deadline that I couldn't miss.

  2. i am really good at planning out big blocks of open time with smaller projects/tasks that are supposed to get done not as good at staying focused and sticking to the plan!
    i'm not sure how well i would work on a really free-form schedule (as opposed to my daily 7-3:30s). i think it might be fun to try, though, and i'm sure after a short "learning intro curve" you'd get the hang of it.

  3. Anonymous8:05 AM

    I'm a senior in college and have a problem with managing my honors thesis that seems similar to your management of your grant project.

    Here is my strategy: I make a list at the beginning of each month with major deadlines and goals that I MUST make during that month. Every Monday, I make another list of smaller tasks/deadlines for that specific week that I need to do to meet my bigger deadline. Every day, I make a regular To Do list to tackle my weekly goals. When I make my daily To Do list, I have my iCal open and I schedule my To Do list with the tentative times that I plan to do each task and then do my best to stick with my plan. It's too easy for me to skip things if they are not scheduled.

    I have been making a huge effort to stick with this plan to be productive over Winter Break, which has been a struggle without any schedule/work at all! Hopefully this is helpful!

  4. When I was in undergrad as a chemE major, between classes, group work sessions, extracurriculars, and rowing crew, I had every hour of the day blocked out and totally know what you mean about being acutely aware of spare time and not "wasting" it. In grad school I had a much more open schedule and my only advice would be to do what you are doing- schedule what you can to make somewhat of a plan. Though, on the other hand, I think that during grad school and not being fixed to a rigid schedule was really good for learning to have a little more enjoyment in life! Sometimes the spontaneous unscheduled time is the best part!

  5. I agree with scheduling out your time anyway. I have a *kind of* flexible schedule, but I keep the same morning routine every day and basically the same evening routine. I guess the nice part is that it gets to be the one I choose.

  6. I'm not sure if you're in front of a computer for your research, but my husband uses a pomodoro counter to keep him on track ( The Simple Dollar ( had a post about staying productive yesterday that might inspire you.

    I really like the blue anthro bag! I also really like the mustard one in the same style.

  7. I'm a huge fan of neverhomemaker too!
    I agree that time management was never an issue while I was a busy undergrad working nearly full time and doing an internship and being an active member of some clubs... or while a newlywed full time grad student, also working full time. Now that I *only* have a job, I have all this time, but I feel I don't use it as well as I used to! I try to schedule my runs/classes at the gyms, but other than that I don't often structure my time well and end up losing an hour here and there getting sucked into the internet.

  8. Anonymous12:36 PM

    My experience is "research" grows out of tickling the knowledge base. Discoveries often come out of you applying what YOU know to some other related field and just noodling around. So were I you I would start with some in depth reading like 4 hours a day in various fields with your antenna raised for ideas. Once you get YOUR idea the rest will tend to fall into place depending on the money you have available to spend and the colleagues you have to bounce your ideas off. This is what engenders excitement in the project.

    Example I was an electrical engineer and wound up implanting silver/silver ion electrodes into rat brains to measure FM waveforms (EEG's are AM waveforms) Turns out brain damage is not continuous over time but due discrete incidents, and I could measure the discrete components of ongoing brain damage ipsi and contralaterally over time. Ran out of money but it would have been a very useful experimental paradigm for looking at therapy for brain damage. I knew about FM, waveforms, and amplifiers and the guy who lived behind me had a neurophysiology lab and rats.

    I worked in a guy's lab who was an expert in low resolution NMR. He applied his low resolution knowledge to high resolution NMR and came up with NMR shift reagents. He became the most cited chemist in the world due to noodling his knowledge and expertise into another field.

    You never know what will trip your trigger so I would worry less about schedules and spend some time immersing yourself in the knowledge. Once you get excited there will be no stopping you

  9. Anonymous1:06 PM

    Sarah -
    I'm a local reader and am enjoying following your foray into the local yoga studios. While I love blue point I find that their all levels classes are not all created equal. In my experience, Brooks and Andrea M generally teach a more rigorous vinyasa style than some others. Also, have you considered franklin st yoga? It's got a fun vibe and I've never had a bad class there.

    As a phd student myself I should have advice on managing open windows of time but instead I always find myself feeling underwhelmed most of the time and then overwhelmed near due dates. For me it helps to schedule backwards. I map out weekly goals from the due date backwards to present day that will allow me to accomplish the task in a reasonable time frame. Of course, following the task timeline then becomes a battle, but at least those unchecked boxes are staring me in the face. It also helps to really capitalize on my most productive time of the day (for me, mid morning to lunch). If I can get on a roll with the most challenging tasks then, I can save the easier ones for my afternoon slump.

    I'm looking forward to reading what others have to say!

  10. it sounds like so many of you do a similar daily/weekly/monthly list sort of style! somehow i am very good at making the lists but not always good at truly being productive throughout the day.

    michelle: i am trying the pomodoro today! i'm on a 5 min break right now :)

    anon: i am envious of the passion which sounds like was behind your research! unfortunately, as much as i hate to admit it, mine is more of a means to an end. i want to do interesting experiments and get data and learn things in the process, but i do not want to BE a researcher long-term. this makes me less thrilled about wanting to spend long chunks of time immersing myself in it . . .

    lauren: i like the thought of putting the more important tasks in the AM and saving easier ones for the afternoon slump (my slump as well).

    and thanks for the yoga info! i did go to franklin street twice and liked it! but blue point is literally RIGHT next to my office @ work, so ridiculously convenient . . . plus i bought a big package of classes there to make it more cost-effective. i will definitely seek out those instructors, though! and if you ever see me, say hi and don't laugh at my inflexibility!!

  11. I do agree with having a to-do list (daily, weekly, monthly), plan meetings with PI as frequent as possible to set deadlines and monitor progress and of course do the writing or any other important and not urgent stuff the time you feel more productive.

    In my experience, the first year I felt at lost with much time at hand and not a clue of what I was suppose to do but after this initial phase you'll have to work on so many tasks that your previous skills on time management will prove very handy. And of course as time goes by, other project will come along, conference talks, writing papers, peer-review papers, teaching, marking etc etc. I find it so much easier to manage my time when I have many things to do rather than one big and vague task. But maybe it's just me.

  12. atilla8:10 PM

    was the gift that keeps on giving a double entendre

  13. Anonymous11:12 PM

    I love the pretty blue purse! And I'm so excited that Staples carries those awesome pens. I am definately stopping by Staples tomorrow. Plus, I still have to get my school supplies- my fav shopping of all!

  14. Anonymous11:35 AM

    Hi Sarah,
    I struggle with this too. As I am just about starting on actually writing my thesis (as opposed to doing research and writing papers), it really is time to get this straight. I have some ideas I am trying out, and I will post about it on my blog soon. I think the internet is the biggest enemy of productivity for me, and this is definitely the issue to beat right now. Have you heard of a program called freedom? I just bought it, and it seems really useful.