Putting your research first

Recently, when I started evaluating what I had been working on, I asked myself the question: Are you putting your research first? And I mean this in terms of what I’m doing when it comes to university and grad school and all the surrounding tasks and responsibilities. For me, the answer was a somewhat surprising, and definitely disappointing, no. And if I’m not putting my research first, I can’t expect to have my research proceed in a timely manner.

It’s been really easy this semester to let other responsibilities take priority over research, such as the track at the conference I’m helping co-chair or TA-ing. But, it’s one of those universal truths, that often what needs to be done, is not the easy or simple path.

Since I made myself face this truth, I’ve started taking action to turn it around. I’ve devised a plan, along with some rules, in order to focus more on my own research. With the eventual hope that it becomes more routine and I won’t have to focus on it in the future, instead it’ll be habit. My plan is as follows:

  • To work on my research a minimum of five days a week. I didn’t set this to seven, because I believe that I should be able to take a day or two off. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do more than five days if I want to.
  • I’m not allowed to “bank” research time. By this, I mean if I work seven days one week, that doesn’t mean the next week I only have to work three. However, when I take vacation (which I’m currently in the midst of planning) in the relatively near future, I won’t be following the above rules. Vacation should be vacation, although the timing will probably mean I’ll need to do some work on it.
  • In order for a day to count, I need to spend a minimum of one pomodoro on research. Which really isn’t all that much – 25 minutes. But, for me, 25 fully dedicated minutes can actually produce an equal amount of work to over an hour’s worth when the hour is full of distractions, like checking email.

I’m currently working on a paper and my candidacy document, which has timed out really well for this goal. I’ve been making sure I spend at least one pomodoro on one of those two each day. I’m also in the process of still running an experiment, and setting up a new one, two more things which take up some time.

By focusing on trying to complete a single pomodoro time worth of work, it can be argued I’m not setting my standards very high. But I’ve generally been putting in a lot more than 25 minutes worth of research work each day. But on days when I have to TA a lab, that’s a three hour chunk of time that’s gone.

I’ve already noticed some positive changes in how I’m working. For example, when I received some new ‘parts’ for my next experiment, I started testing them out that day – even though it was Sunday. I was actually excited and motivated to work on it. In fact, doing this, for me, has created a very positive cycle. I’m much more motivated when things are moving forward and getting done. By making myself spend time, even when unmotivated, I’m getting things done and stuff is moving forward, which  increases my overall motivation, continuing the cycle.

It’s also helped me start to delegate more. There’s been some TA work that I’ve just taken on, although there is no reason for me to be the only TA doing the work. So this week, I made a point in our TA meeting to ask one of the other TAs to take over and do the work this week, freeing up some of my time to work on my own stuff. And the other day when I was working, I needed to do some laundry, and timing it so that it would need to be switched over during my pomodoro breaks.

What do you do to make sure that your research remains a priority?


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