3 useful habits for your research workflow

I chronically tinker with my research workflow. I try to find better ways to brainstorm, organize my schedule, manage my time, manage my files (e.g., datafiles, R code, manuscripts, etc.), read and synthesize research articles, etc. In some ways, I am always in a state of self-experimentation: I find an idea, make a change, and then reflect on whether that change was helpful. Some of these changes have “stuck” and become part of my research workflow. 
Recently I have been reflecting on which of my research workflow habits have proven useful and stuck with me over the (relatively) long haul. Here are my current top 3.

Habit #1: Making 1 substantive change per day on an active writing project

Researchers are writers and writing takes time. However, academic writing is a marathon, not a sprint, so academic writing takes a lot of time. It is not uncommon for some of my writing projects to be stretched out over the course of months and sometimes years. I don’t know if this makes me a slow writer, but this is the pace at which I can write good academic prose. If I was less diligent, this timeline could be stretched out even further.

One habit that keeps me on track is to have an active writing project like a manuscript or a grant and commit to making one substantive change each day until the project is completed. Just one change. Even if you only have 5 minutes on a given day, that is sufficient time to open up your writing project, start reading, and make one substantive change. This could be making a sentence more concise, finding ways to smooth a transition between two related ideas, or replacing an imprecise adjective with a more appropriate one. Typically, when I make my one change for the day I end up writing for a longer period of time. The whole point of this habit is that “one change is more than none change.”

Committing to one change per day is helpful because it keeps the project moving forward. It is a horrible feeling when you want to get a manuscript out the door and it has sat idle for 2 months. Where did the time go? Then you think about how much collective time you spent on Twitter and you wish you could have all of that time back in one big chunk. Sigh!

Habit #2: Learn to juggle

There is a saying that goes “being a good juggler is to be a good thrower.” As a researcher, I am always handling several projects that are happening in parallel. Each of these projects requires a sequence of actions. Every now and then (like once a week), you need to assess your active projects and think about the current statuses and trajectories of each of these projects. Which balls are suspended in the air? Which balls are falling and require your immediate attention? Which balls can be thrown back up into the air? Are there any balls you can get rid of?

For example, preparing an IRB application requires you to accomplish a few activities (e.g., write the application, gather the stimuli, etc.), but once the IRB application is submitted you are merely waiting for approval; there is nothing that you can actively do with the application after it is submitted. Suppose you are at the beginning stages of a project and you need to do two activities: (a) write an IRB application and (b) program a study. It may make more sense to write the IRB application first and then, while the IRB application is being reviewed, take the time to program the study rather than vice versa. While you are programming the study, the IRB application review is happening in parallel. This is an example of “throwing” the IRB application ball so you can focus on the study programming ball.

This example seems obvious, but the juggling gets more complex as you get more balls in the air. Regularly assess all of your active projects and identify your next throw. Over time you begin to identify which throws are good throws. For me, good throws are either submissions (IRB applications, manuscript submissions, grant submissions, etc.) or getting feedback to co-authors because those projects can move forward at the same time I am focusing on doing other activities. For example, if there is a manuscript that is 95% complete, I focus my energies on the last 5%. Once the manuscript is submitted I can turn my attention to other things while that ball is suspended in air (i.e., the manuscript is being peer-reviewed). The habit that I have developed is nearly-completed manuscripts and providing feedback to co-authors are priorities.

The key to making this habit work is to take the time and strategically choose your next throw. There is a big difference between the rhythm, cadence, and zen of a juggler and the chaos, stress, and frustration of whack-a-mole.

Habit #3: Clear the clutter

At the beginning of this year I wanted to make a small change to reduce the amount of emails I receive. I used to get a lot of mass emails from places such as Twitter notifications, TurboTax, the American Legion, Honeywell thermostats (seriously!), etc. I never read these emails. Never! Now, whenever I get an automated email that I know I will never read, I go to the bottom of the email and find the “unsubscribe” link in the fine print. I take the 5 seconds to unsubscribe because I know that the 5 seconds I spend now will be repaid with minutes of my future time. I probably get 50% fewer emails now. Merely unsubscribing from mass emails has given me enough free time to make my one substantial change per day (Habit #1 above).

Here’s how you can immediately incorporate these habits into your research workflow. First, assess your current projects and identify if there are any “good throws” you can make. Is there a manuscript that if you really, really focus on, you could get submitted in the next week? Is there a draft of a manuscript you could get returned to a co-author if you spent the afternoon in focused writing? Commit to executing one good throw. Second, identify a writing project that you will commit to writing on every single day. This can be your “good throw” project from the first step or something else altogether. Try to write on this project every day for a week. What do you have to lose? My prediction is that you will notice the progress and you won’t want to stop making your daily substantive change. Finally, commit to unsubscribing from mass/junk emails as they come into your inbox. Just do it. You will notice a steady decrease in the amount of clutter in your inbox (and fewer distractions) as time goes on.

Good luck and have a productive day.

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