Tales of the lab: 8 To do lists

It is hard to define what is a typical day in research. In my case, it can be a combination of reading, bench work, formal and informal meeting, attending lectures or talks, or sitting behind my computer. It can be (and certainly is), a combination of excitement, frustration, intense thinking, hopes, doubts, impostor syndrome, surprise, boredom, questioning, laughing, chatting, …

But all in all, it always spins around my to do lists.

You don’t need to be in a research field to know the value of to do lists. I do them as well when I go on holidays, or even on week ends. It is sooo useful to be efficient, or at least, to feel like it. It depends on what you put on your list.

I usually use the late afternoons to take a look at the results I got during the day, trying to find some logical explanations to the outcomes. And to confront it with my previous results and what I expected. I put everything in the form of graphs, pictures and keywords (I take an awful lot of pictures, with my camera, no smartphone – as a student noticed “oh I didn’t know they still sell those” -. Having a pocket camera is apparently so hipster…), in a PPT so that I can have a visual overview. Adding the dates on each results, I can easily track back to my lab-book if I need to remember the details. I add the question I wanted to answer and the result I expected.

Doing this, questions naturally rise: why this happened? How would it be if this parameter changes? Is it different from that other result? Does it confirm it? Etc. Cross-checking hypotheses and results with literature, Wikipedia, research gate, it is easy to come up with new ideas for experiments or calculations to validate and verify them and to keep the project streamline flowing.

Experiments, calculations, all these can be carefully planned for the next day or week and are new elements to add to the to-do list: book that equipment, order that chemical, ask this person, etc.

Adding basic “easy” items to the list makes it more comfortable for the next day: you don’t have to remember to refill the pipet tips or to prepare the solution that needs to stir one day so that you can do the reaction the after: it is written. Better use your brain and memory for more useful and interesting tasks.

If you are well organised, you can start doing things in parallel. If you are quick enough, this will give you ample time later in the day to try other things that come to your mind, to take a break, or to go a step ahead to start new things.

If there is nothing on the list, then it is a great time to browse the web, to chat with people around, to look for potential conferences, to catch up with publications outside your field or from your previous colleagues. Or to leave early and do something else, you deserve it.