3 Time Management Tips for Busy Lab Managers

When you're juggling the many responsibilities of being a lab manager, it can seem like there just aren't enough hours in the day to get it all done. And you're probably thinking, everyone in every industry faces this. But that doesn't mean you can't break the mold.

Through smart time management strategies, this balancing act gets way easier. Here are three ways you can make long days at the lab a little less hectic.

1. Time Batch for Success

While it can be tempting to power through and multitask, many productivity experts suggest that it's better to focus on accomplishing one task at a time. As a lab manager, your days are constant balancing acts — you need to effectively divide your time between management responsibilities and lab work.

Time batching can help ensure that each project is done well and that you are being the most efficient with your limited time. By prioritizing which tasks need immediate attention and tackling those with similar levels of involvement in one fell swoop, it's easier to block out distractions and transition from one item to the next.

Here are a couple of different methods for prioritizing tasks.

Quadrant Method

The quadrant time-management process works by categorizing tasks using two key factors: important versus not important, and urgent versus non-urgent. You can visualize these categories on a four-quadrant grid.

When determining which tasks to put in which group, Entrepreneur explains it like this: Urgent and important items are those with immediate and important deadlines, such as completing a time-sensitive test for a customer. You should always strive to complete these tasks first.

Anything in the realm of long-term strategizing and development — such as setting goals for your lab, researching the latest water testing technologies, and ensuring compliance to all regulatory standards — should be categorized as important, but not urgent. It's still important to block out time for these important tasks so they don't get overshadowed by the urgent ones.

Urgent and not important tasks are ones that seem urgent, but are not actually important to your lab — aka the productivity killers. These often come in the form of phone calls, emails, or a colleague interrupting you to talk.

And then there are those tasks that are not urgent and just not important: Outdated routine tasks or emails that don't require action or documentation. For these time-suck routines, sit down and figure out whether or not they're truly essential to your lab's operations. If the answer is no, take them off your list.

Pomodoro Method

This time batching technique is named after the tomato-shaped timer. It works by splitting your time into 25-minute blocks to accomplish tasks. Start by setting a timer, then focus on your mission and ignore all distractions until the time is up. For example, you might spend one time block finishing a test and another answering emails. You'll probably be interrupted, but try to delay dealing with these flares until your 25-minute block has come to an end.

And after each interval, give yourself a five-minute break. Step away from the bench, or get up from your desk, and go stretch your legs. A change of scenery can rejuvenate your creativity, so consider using this time to grab a quick cup of tea or coffee with a coworker.

Repeat this process until you've completed four intervals, and then take a longer break.

2. Leverage the Technology at Your Fingertips

If you've ever wished you could clone yourself, then look to lab automation for assistance. Even if your lab isn't equipped with a fancy lab robot that can handle samples, you should at least lean on a laboratory information management system (LIMS). You probably already use this software for sample management, but consider spending a bit of time investigating its full capabilities, such as workflow management and fully automated information tracking.

Use the technology that you already carry in your pocket to help you wrangle your schedule, too. Set ample reminders via your smartphone or a smart speaker. Free and easy checklist apps such as Trello are wonderful tools for lab managers to improve their time management.

3. Beware of Overload

Keep in mind that no matter how well you plan and prioritize, you can only handle so much work. Taking on more than you can handle will only lead to errors and burnout. So delegate as much as possible and practice saying no, even when it feels easier to say yes.

Also, set healthy work-life boundaries. While sleep, exercise, and nutrition aren't in your job description, they're all components that affect your work performance. Carve out a few moments throughout the day for self-care rituals. Investing in a few moments to calm your mind will help you tackle your to-do list with renewed energy.

Time management may feel like yet another thing to add to your long to-do list, but it can greatly improve your business, mental health, and relationships. So take charge of your day and you'll keep your lab — and yourself — running better.

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Kelly McSweeney
Science and Technology Writer
Armed with a master's degree in writing and a decade of professional work in scientific publishing, Kelly McSweeney writes about science and technology innovations. She translates complicated topics into stories that capture the curiosity of everyone from casual readers to technical experts. Kelly has degrees from Emerson College and the University of Vermont, and has worked on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics publications at Wiley, In Compliance magazine, and Pearson. Her articles about the latest research are published by ZDNet, Northrop Grumman, and Wiley.