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Balance–Difficult to Maintain in Research Laboratories

Reader Question: Although not new to the teaching and research field, I still struggle with balancing the demands of family, teaching, and research responsibilities. This struggle makes teaching my students to be more balanced in their use of time an even more difficult task. What tips do you find helpful in addressing the complex “balancing act” facing many active research professionals?

Expert Comments: Be assured that most of us are challenged by fitting everything in to a very busy day! Whether vital appointments must be juggled, or we are facing after-school activities for several young ones, balancing the important with the less important priorities is difficult. A few key tips can help manage a complex calendar and accomplish much more as a result.

Tip #1: Develop a simple task-tracking system. Many get organized around their overarching goals: maintain healthy family life, provide solid and impactful research results, develop talented research associates. Once the more important goals are identified, you next can set about establishing priorities. What step or segment of the goal is most important and which is least? Can checklists, calendar events, or daily planner entries help to add the element of time to those priorities? Then, track what is accomplished and check them off your list as you do so. The list system that you establish should be flexible and enable you in a moment to review progress and accomplishments.

Tip #2: Delegate when possible. “A common thought of some PI’s is, ‘I don’t think some of these tasks can be delegated, nor do I have qualified staff members to which I can delegate them,’” notes planning expert Rick Parmely. Both are essentially the same problem: staff development.

To make a conscious effort to delegate any task, the graduate or post-doctoral student must have training, encouragement, and direction. This takes time, but when invested properly this time will result in freeing up more time for use elsewhere. Tips when delegating include selecting tasks that can be delegated without much supervision initially and then progressively in- creasing the level of difficulty as the smaller task is accomplished. Also, select carefully a researcher who has the drive and potential to grow into handling more difficult assignments. Finally, to help reinforce good performance, monitor his or her progress closely and provide encouraging feedback.

Tip #3: Invest in training others. Parmely notes a second common objection among PI’s: “Taking time training seems counterintuitive to me since I don’t have time to do what I want to do now!”

Training does take some short-term time investment, but it frees up resources in the long run. How can we balance that? Once good candidates have been identified, as in the delegation tip above, use short training cycles. Look for tasks that can be mastered easily and then build progressively to more complicated ones.

For example, if a challenging, complex measurement requires a routine sample preparation regime, teach how the sample is prepped first. Once that is mastered, but not before, move to the next step, perhaps leading to the complex measurement. Deliver the training in smaller increments so that it can be adsorbed and mastered before moving on to the more complex aspects of the research. Recruit others to help. The key is to appreciate that training frees up time.

Maintaining balance can be difficult to achieve. If you apply these three simple tips, balancing time commitments by freeing up time from other important activities is possible. The effort to put these tips into practice will require additional time, but the long-range payoff is worth it!

Expert comments provided by Rick Parmely, founder of Polished and Professional LLC, a training company that specializes in improving the communication skills of presenters everywhere, from the individual investigator to large groups of trainers.

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