Tag Archives: to-do lists


7 Feb

I guess you know the situation. Sometimes there is just too much work for not enough time. A grant proposal is due. A paper needs to be revised. Collaborators want to discuss new ideas. And there is a talk to prepare. You think you’ll drown.

So this actually happened to me last week. As I realized how bad the situation was (some time last weekend) and realized that the stress was probably going to last for at least 10 days (until the grant proposal deadline), I tried to remember everything I had read about stress-management in the last years and I decided to
1. try and keep healthy habits, 2. actively postpone things and 3. get help.

I’ll tell you a bit more.

1. To me, keeping healthy habits means, for example, eating proper food, getting enough sleep and having lunch with my colleagues. These habits are important because they help me to work most efficiently in my working hours and stay sane during a stressful week.

2. Next, I identified a few things that could be postponed, and I postponed them. Most importantly, I sent emails to my collaborators or others involved to let them know that I was postponing things. I find that telling people that I will not be working on our shared project this week, is key to actually freeing my mind from thinking about that project.

Ask for help

3. Maybe most importantly, I decided to ask for help. I found two to-do items that I could ask others to do for me.

One of the to-do items was to run simulations. I needed to run simulations with code that I hadn’t used for a long time. It would certainly take me a few hours to remember how the code worked and to get the results I needed. However, I knew that a graduate student in the office next to mine was working on a related project and he had recently been running simulations that were very similar to what I needed. So I asked him if he were willing to run the simulations for me and he was 🙂
In fact, my request led to a few interesting discussions and who knows, maybe it will lead to a fun collaboration.

The other thing I asked someone else to do, was to edit my paper. I had a paper that was almost accepted, except that the editors wanted me to make a few changes to the text. Because of all the other things on my plate, editing the paper seemed like a huge task. I decided to ask a friend who sometimes works as an editor to help out. I knew that she could do a better job than me in less time. And she’d be happy to do it, because I’d be paying for it. It cost me 100 dollars, but it saved me at least two hours of work and a lot of stress.

Plan B

Now that I have written this post, I realize that there is one more thing that helps me deal with stress: making a plan B.

Last week, the stress was mainly due to a grant proposal I had to write. So what I needed to do is determine what would happen if I didn’t manage to write a good proposal. I needed to answer the question: “What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t make the deadline and how will I deal with that?” By knowing how I will deal with failure, I feel much more at ease, which helps me to sleep well, which helps me to work efficiently, which helps me not to fail.

In the end, it turned out that my grant proposal was not due until May 7th (now I know that the NIH has separate deadlines for AIDS-related proposals!), so my week ended with less stress than expected.

I’d love to hear how you deal with stress!

January is for writing

9 Jan

A new month has started and I decided to use it to focus on becoming a better writer. For me, writing is one of the favorite parts of being a scientist. Obviously, writing is also very important for my work, because the written word is one of the main communication tools in science. January is a good month to write. No holidays, no conferences, just four-and-a-half weeks of uninterrupted time to work. So, as I plan to write both a paper and a grant proposal this month, it is the perfect time to “become a better writer.” My goals are simple:

1. Learn to write more convincing and easier to follow texts.
2. Learn to write papers and proposals more efficiently.

In order to do this, I plan to follow other people’s advice.

1. I will watch videos and read blogs on writing papers and proposals.
2. I will read the relevant chapters in the HHMI lab management book. If you don’t own this book already, you should definitely order it. It is useful and free.
3. I will read parts of The Elements of Style book and apply what I learn.

A one page narrative

I already watched one video on writing papers and thought it was pretty good. What I took from it is to write a one page narrative of the contents of a paper before starting to actually write the paper. If you cannot write this one page narrative, you are not ready to write the paper.

I use a similar rule – or rather a set of rules – for presentations. Before even thinking about the slides, I need to have the story ready (usually written out entirely). Before I start to write the entire story, I prepare an informal abstract. And before writing the abstract, I will write a one-sentence take home message. This way, I am sure that I don’t end up with slides but no story. The other way around (a story but no slides) wouldn’t be so bad – but in reality this never happens: as soon as the story is there, the slides can be made in almost no time.

By the way, I used this site from the Purdue Writing Lab to check that my use of commas in this blog post is correct. Commas are complicated, especially in English and German.

If you have tips on how to become a better writer, I would love to hear from you!

Real work every day

22 Oct

I am now 12 days into my “Being a better scientist” project. When I started, I made two general resolutions:
1. Do real work every day
2. No work after 8PM

Last week I added a third one:
3. Go to work five days a week (as opposed to working from home)

For me, “real work” means research. My job is to do research. My career is based on research. It’s what I want to do. I want to find out why HIV becomes resistant to drugs and how we can stop HIV from doing that. Only by doing research I can answer that question. But much of my time is spent on non-research tasks. Here are some of the tasks on my to-do list for this week:
1. Write applications for faculty jobs
2. Send emails about a symposium I organize with three others
3. Write the end-of-year report for my HFSP fellowship
4. Answer emails
5. Move my website
6. Attend labmeeting

These non-research tasks are often easier than doing research and they can be finished quicker and thus give the satisfaction of crossing off an item of my to-do list. I also like some of these tasks a lot (although writing an end-of-year report is not one of my favorites). Plus, they are often associated with some pressure from others to get the tasks done. For all of these reasons, I can easily spend an entire day working hard and feeling good about getting stuff done, but without doing any research. I decided that that was not very smart. Hence the resolution: “Do real work every day.”

Today I had lot’s of non-research things to do, so I was tempted to let my self off the hook regarding the “Real work every day” resolution. But I managed to squeeze in 45 minutes of coding, and started simulations that will run through the night. I love it when my computer is doing research while I sleep! I will definitely stick with this resolution.