in Productivity

Why I don’t go to the lab in the morning (ideally) – Scheduling my day around energy and focus

Working in accord with how much energy I have has had a profound effect on me and my productivity.

Now, when I plan out what I need to do for the day, I think about how much energy and time I will need to do the work. The underlying idea here is that different kinds of work require different amounts of energy and time. All work is not created equal.

Thus, I categorize my work as follows:

  • Creative (generative) work: High energy, high focus, uninterrupted blocks of time
  • Consumptive work: Medium to low energy, medium to low focus, short or long periods of time
  • Procedural work (in my world, that means doing experiments): Medium to low energy, medium to low focus, variable time
  • Meetings and Appointments: Medium to low energy, medium to low focus, variable time
  • Paper-pushing: Low energy, low focus, variable time

And, here is how I feel on most days:

Morning: High energy, high focus, low distraction

Afternoon: Medium energy, variable focus, high distraction

Evening: Low energy, low focus, low distraction

You can see that there is a natural pairing then, between the categories of work and times of day for me. The morning is prime time for creative work, since I am at my peak energy and focus. Spending my time answering emails or doing TPS reports would be a wasted opportunity, since for me, at least, I can’t do creative work later in the day. I get one shot to do the hardest, most cognitively demanding, and usually highest value work in my universe of stuff to do. For me, that usually amounts to writing of some sort (papers, grants, blogging) and/or problem solving. It’s when I do deep work. As you can imagine, I’m very protective of this time, and I try to use it exclusively for creative work. When you know that you only get a fixed window to do your best and hardest stuff, intrusions into this sacred time become particularly irksome.

Consumptive work is my term for taking in information by reading, watching or listening. Consumption for me is less demanding than creating, and so I need less energy and focus to do it, in general. If I’m learning something that is challenging conceptually, or totally new to me, consumption might require more of me, but never quite like creative work. Thus, I tend to do my consumptive work at later parts of the day, usually in the afternoon or evening. Moreover, consumption can be stop-and-go, in a way that creative work really can’t be, so I find that things like reading a paper or watching a video can be less rigid in terms of scheduling. Whenever I have some spare time that isn’t planned, I can fill it with consumptive work.

Then we have procedural work, which right now as a grad student, means doing lab work. Doing experimental work is a key part of being a biomedical graduate student. It’s got to get done in order to advance toward my degree. But in terms of energy and cognitive demand, most experimental lab work doesn’t really require a whole lot from me, since it’s mostly a matter of moving small volumes of liquid from one tube to another. Thus, for me, experiments are best conducted when my energy is not totally drained, but not peak either, which is usually the afternoon to early evening. Doing a mini-prep or passing cells during my peak AM hours would be suboptimal to say the least, since those kinds of necessary but low-input tasks don’t need the cognitive horsepower that writing a paper does. That’d be like bringing a Ferrari to a go-cart race – expensive and unnecessary.

Similarly, whenever possible, I schedule all of my meetings or appointments for the afternoon, since on the whole, most meetings are, sadly, a waste of time, and even when they’re not, they don’t need the same focus and energy as creative work.

And lastly, there are the myriad other tasks of life like filling out forms, responding to emails, moving cells in an Excel sheet that I call paper-pushing for lack of a better term. The evening, after dinner, when I’m completely drained, is the appropriate time for these kinds of things.

So what does an ideal day look like for me? Well, kind of like yesterday actually.

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In the morning, I’m home. After my morning ritual, I was able to write a solid blog post, do a quick workout, and then spend a solid 2.5 hours working on writing a paper. I do this all at home for several reasons.

First, I have a sweet home office here (with a standing desk, of course), where I’m comfortable. Second, and most importantly, I’m minimally distracted. There is very little here at home to draw me away from the hard work I need to do. My environment, as much as my energy, is critical to doing creative work. I’ve tried to do serious creative work at the lab, but I nearly always fail, because there are so many things pulling me away. “Beep, beep… Oh it’s time to go change the wash buffer.” [Colleague walks into office] “Hey Alex, can you come help me with those cells…”

With so many bells and whistles, I find it impossible to not be diverted from doing creative work. In fact, in some ways, I use experiments in the lab as a way to procrastinate, since I can always rationalize doing an experiment. “How can you feel bad about doing one more experiment?” I tell myself. But the truth is, it keeps me from doing the other important things I need to do. I know I am not alone in this.

Recognizing my weaknesses, I don’t even try to fight anymore. I just don’t try to do serious creative work at lab. Hence, I do it all during my creative block in the morning at home. In this way, I get to take advantage of the benefits of batch processing and intensely mono-tasking.

For lunch, I’ll then leave my house and use that as a time to meet up with a friend or colleague. I try to never eat lunch alone.

Then, I come to lab to do one thing: experiments. I’m not there to read, I’m not there to cruise Facebook. I’m not there to take an hour-long coffee break. I’m there to work. On experiments.

Importantly, because I did my hardest and most important things in the morning, I have no feelings of guilt or ‘open loops’. I did what I needed to do hours ago. There is no pang of guilt or unease that there is an untouched manuscript or grant vying for my attention while I’m doing that Western Blot. I can go headlong into the experimental work, once again taking advantage of batch processing and single-tasking. It’s a pretty awesome feeling actually. Yesterday afternoon was like that. If there are down moments between experiments, as there often are in biological work, that’s a good time for some consumptive work, since I can digest content reasonably well in the time periods that you have (30 min incubation, 5 minute washes, etc.). And, unlike creative work, which is so hard to get back into after you’ve been dragged out, consumption is much easier to resume, at least it is for me.

I’ll do my experiments until about 6–7 pm, and then go home, have dinner with my lovely wife, unwind, talk about the day, and then maybe do a little paper pushing. Then time for bed so I can wake up early and do it again the next day.

Now, full disclosure. Not every day is like this, nor can it be like this. This is the ideal, that I’m increasingly making a reality, but not always.

Some days, unfortunately, look like this:

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It’s part of the game. Biological wet work sometimes thwarts our best laid plans. But these kinds of days would have been everyday about a year ago, when I wasn’t thinking smart about the kinds of work I do, and the different demands they make on me. Many grad students’ calendars will look like this all the time, where the work under the impression that they can do all the things they need to do in one place – experiments, read, write, meet with people, etc – at any time of the day.

Admittedly, some people can do that, but I know that many grad students (and probably some faculty too) struggle as I have. I’d challenge them to try to schedule their days in a different way, that is based around their energy and focus, rather than just time and place. Indeed, one of the major perks of academic work is the tremendous autonomy we have. We should take advantage of that. Most 9-to–5 people couldn’t schedule their days as I do, even if they wanted to, because most work culture is still very rigid with respect to time (although the idea of flex-time) is changing that.

Academia affords us the flexibility to work in the best way possible (for the most part). What a waste to not take advantage of that.