Time Diet:  Productivity tools for life in the lab (and outside)

It is often said that time is money.  However to me time is time.  It’s our most precious commodity.  Money can be both in short resource, which can be crippling, and in good supply, so much so that infinite does not matter.  However, at least currently, time for humans is finite, so much so, that to me time matters more than money.  With that mantra in mind, I have been analysing my time and trying to go on a time diet.  By time diet, much like a weight reduction plan, the first step is normally to analyse your habits, be it good or bad (I did this with google calendars and IFTTT, more in a later blog post on this).  Based on this analysis you can then plan to reduce what you already do, in terms of time thereby freeing resource.  After examining my time and coupling with my interests in automation these are the steps I took to invest time in order to free up my primary resource, time, in order to free up future time.  I see this as investing in myself from a time perspective.  I thought I would share them with the blogosphere (yes I may have made up this word) in the hope it can save you time.

I collated my time-saving tips via application category and potential time saving (if I can calculate it).  In this post I am not going to tell you precisely how to use these tools, you can look this up but I will illustrate what tools you can use to perform certain tasks, which I believe to be of particular relevance to scientists and the potential time saved.

Finding scientific equipment:

General workflow of a scientific experiment.

  • I have a hypothesis to test.
  • I think about whether we have the appropriate equipment to test the hypothesis.
  • I realise we don’t have the equipment to test the experiment (or at least properly).

I therefore in my mind have three options:

  1. I fit the experiment around what equipment we have in the lab (I suspect the most common option).
  2. I find the equipment I need.
  3. I build the equipment I need (most likely the least common).

For option 1, look at what you have in the lab and determine whether any of it can be easily modified to to test your hypothesis.

TIME INVESTMENT = depends on the modifications needed.

TIME SAVED = local options are good as you should be able to create something reasonably quickly dependant on experimental needs.

For option 2, Google search operators are a great way to find academic research equipment both within and outside your department (aside from asking colleagues).

The most useful search operator to me is site: .ac.uk [search term here]

This search term will yield only results found in websites with .ac.uk extensions and thereby facilities or equipment in the UK.  The same can be applied to the USA by using .edu, although the distance may be greater to said resource.

This search operator can be further concatenated with other search terms, read Google’s guide and you can narrow search terms and better use the internet rather than trawling unspecific location and institution unspecific searches.

I have used this numerous times to find appropriate equipment within and beyond the university I work within in order to progress my research.

TIME INVESTMENT = the time it takes to type search operator, let’s say three minutes.  Let’s say you spend 20 minutes for one item of equipment you really need access to.

TIME SAVED = potentially immeasurable if you find the piece of equipment you are looking for.  It is good for a quick search though.

For option 3, building your own equipment, whilst time consuming can be tremendously rewarding, particularly if it answers a question that can not be answered with current equipment, in this scenario the equipment you invent is likely to be publishable and/or patentable in its own right.

TIME INVESTMENT = variable, it really depends on the complexity of the device.

TIME SAVED = in the short term none, in the long term lots.

Ideally option 1 or 2 should be your first port of call but given the expense of most pieces of even basic scientific equipment such as PCR thermocyclers, labs building their own equipment is becoming increasingly common and there are some excellent kickstarter projects which are disrupting hows scientific equipment is being constructed and distributed.  Notable examples being openpcr and more recently the bento lab.  I would highly recommend those that are interested in building you own lab equipment, particularly those with electronic equipment to become proficient in using a raspberry pi single board computer and also learning to use the command line within linux operating systems and also a programming language such as python.  Knowledge of these processes will help you create all manner of equipment at a fraction of the cost of commercial solutions and will also permit you to release your solutions as open source so that the rest of the scientific community can utilise, build upon and improve your work.

Accessing equipment

Remote access is a great way to access computer resource remotely, I am frankly amazed not more scientists make use of this tool (at least amongst my colleagues which cross several disciplines).  In the past I have used this to check on experimental progress for time lapse microscopy experiments, monitor progress of experiments using a camera, temperature probes etc. whilst all from the comfort of my own living room normally with a cup of coffee in my pyjamas (I would love to turn up at work in my pyjamas but I already commute via a scooter and it’s probably not practical given the weather).  I also set up a security camera based on remote access software after some bike thieving scum bag tried to steal my bike from my garage (but that is another story).

I currently mainly use remote access to connect to computing power for analysis of computed tomography data, which is well beyond the capabilities of my laptop.  Remote access can be configured manually (via RDP on windows, although I hear the basic windows 10 has removed this capability, although there are other ways, VPN etc) and whilst not significantly challenging can irritate some IT departments dependant on policy and remote access via this route may not be possible.

One FREE (for non-commercial use) and stand out software that permits all of this and for me stands hands above the rest I have tried, TEAMVIEWER.  TeamViewer permits remote access to the desktop of a client machine even on a relatively managed university machines (it uses ports which are commonly used to access the internet, so your university should not block them by default). In addition the software  can not only access the desktop of remote machines but can act as a desktop sharing program which I have used to complete publica­­tions with colleagues all over the world.

TIME INVESTMENT  = I would estimate 30 minutes being generous.  To install the software on the host and the client.  In other words install the software on your computer and the computer you wish to connect to.

TIME SAVED = lots, for me, weeks of time.  The remote access option of this software alone I would estimate in the last 5 years has saved me weeks if not months of time, due to a reduction in commuting/travelling to meet collaborators combined with not commuting to another department.  Currently this saves me a round walking trip of 30 minutes (my scooter doesn’t really help as its mainly uphill, see later) every single time and I use this approximately once a week.

Twitter is a great way to connect to a community of like-minded researchers (once you have built up a community of people you follow and followers).  I did set up a twitter feed for the sole purpose of locating equipment for my locale (although admit it didn’t work so well, @helpshefsci) but connecting to departmental (in my case currently @msesheffield) or organisation twitter hubs this can be a potential way to find specialist equipment.  Similarly this can be applied to Facebook and also LinkedIn.  The former, ironically (as it is considered less ‘professional’) I find more useful than the latter.  This is most likely as a product of personal connection related to Facebook as often LinkedIn contacts, I find, can be making connection for the sake of making connection, or in the case of science, dubious publishers trawling the site for academics with keywords using the psychology of other respected individuals connected with them therefore they are trustworthy in order to convince you to submit to their journal.  Which is an interesting development of using personal credibility for the purpose of spam, a variety of publishers use this method, and I chortle a little to see well-respected professors fall prey to this approach.

TIME INVESTMENT = most individuals will have profiles for such websites.  However I would estimate 20 minutes maximum to set up.  5 – 10 minutes a day browsing, making connections and commenting dependant on how much procrastination you are doing, travel or sitting on the toilet.

TIME SAVED = unsure.  Make a useful connection can be potentially immeasurable.  For me it beats having a meeting for the sake of a meeting, which most people appear to spend most of their working week doing.

Commuting – local

This section is completely dependent on your circumstances but all I know is that traffic at least on the local scale appears to move with the following order during peak times (although obviously overall distance is a big factor in this relationship).

Bike > Walking > Car

If you look at googles maps and route planning, the above categories covers the primary mode of transport directions they offer, although I have come across one other in California and is one I would like the UK to consider more.  Or at least a variant of this (the one in California is a skateboard).

I currently use a scooter to commute.  Not a motorised scooter but in effect an oversized variant that a child would use.  I get a significant number of odd looks, several laughs and occasionally abuse (seriously).  I am not sure what that says about the city I live in but I will continue to use this mode of transport.  Primarily as it has reduced my commute time by 35%.

Using geofencing on my phone and IFTTT (more on this later) this is one of the few things I have substantial data on.  Basically my round trip commute time (walking) from home to work was 70 minutes/day, I have reduced this to 45 minutes/day.  Not a great saving one might say but over the course of a week this adds up to 2 hours a week.  The cost of my scooter £40.  It very quickly pays of itself in terms of time saved.

TIME INVESTMENT = buy or make a scooter.  5 minutes to unknown (I admit I bought one).

TIME SAVED = depends on local circumstance.

Time management and organisation

Any electronic calendar.  Any electronic calendar will save you time in the long run.  Particularly if you have a smart phone and link it to that.  I use google calendar but there are many others.

The one thing I do use it for is co-ordinating my time with students.  Students do not realise that my primary purpose (at least as a postdoc) is not to be a servant to them.  They therefore need to be realise that my time is important and so is theirs.  I make sure they put any teaching commitments they have in their google calendar so that we both have reasonable expectations of each other’s time.

TIME INVESTMENT = using a calendar should be something automatic to all researchers.   I probably spend 30 minutes a day planning workload, future goals and experiments.

TIME SAVED = quite a lot.  Students do not tend to turn up so much unannounced I therefore have more time to focus.  I don’t have the luxury of a tenured contract therefore I do not have the luxury of an open door policy (which is generally something academics say, when they are actually in their office).

An inventory system.   For a lab fridge/freezer inventory I use one note (https://www.onenote.com/) so that I can share this with relevant individuals so that when stock is running low, I can order more reagents.  I also use this at home to catalogue my freezer contents so that when I am at the supermarket I know what I have at home and don’ t buy things I do not need.

TIME INVESTMENT = using a calendar should be something automatic to all researchers.  Difficult to say.  I probably spend 30 minutes a day planning workload, future goals and experiments.

TIME SAVED = quite a lot, I would estimate several hours of distraction.  Students do not tend to turn up so much unannounced I therefore have more time to focus.

Doodle polls.  Ever tried to organise a meeting with several colleagues only to find e-mail ping pong ensues.  Doodle polls (http://doodle.com/en_GB/) are a potential way to minimise this and get colleagues to tick boxes as to when they are able to attend a meeting using a simple easy to use interface.

One e-mail for the link.  People fill in the link.  You send out the meeting details based on information put in the doodle poll.

Obviously if you are all on the same network infrastructure and use shared calendars you may be able to scan each other’s calendars however I often find many individuals do not use electronic calendars or do not update them so e-mail ping pong ensues after you try to book a meeting.

TIME INVESTMENT  = using a calendar should be something automatic to all researchers.  Difficult to say.  I probably spend 30 minutes a day planning workload, future goals and experiments.

TIME SAVED = quite a lot.  Students do not tend to turn up so much unannounced I therefore have more time to focus.

Task automation

In an ideal world I would automate all non-essential tasks and/or repetitive tasks from not only an administrative perspective but also if I have given the same information more than once then I have wasted my time.

IFTTT which stands for if this then that (IFTTT, https://ifttt.com/), not a big fan of the name if I am completely honest, not so catchy, but the service I think is quite useful.  IFTTT links several different programs together and creates rules which trigger actions.  I currently use this for a variety of tasks

  • An electronic lab book. I take pictures of both my written lab book and the photographs on my phone related to research.  Based on geofencing in particular location this is backed up to cloud storage.
  • I track work hours, well more commute time (related to my scooter) in google drive spreadsheet.
  • I also track the time I spend on tasks, using hastags in google calendar that are related to my job function but for which I am not rewarded but merely expected to do and are then automatically collated into a spreadsheet.

There are many other IFTTT recipes you can create and in many cases, it’s the tip of the iceberg (I hate this quote but use it nonetheless).

I have other time-saving tips but will save this for another post as this is already a long post, so thanks if you have stayed with me for this long.

What tools do you use, for efficiency in the lab, ideally that are free and at the point of purchase and easy to set up?

Share them, they may help save time for someone, whose research may save lives.

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