It’s Wednesday night. I’ve brought home a stack of papers to read, data from the day’s experiments to analyze, and an unfinished award application that is due Friday. Prioritizing my tasks, I turn on my computer and start the award application. Two paragraphs in, I get an e-mail, which somehow leads me to look up some unrelated information on the internet. A few minutes later, I am watching the latest episode of Arrested Development on Netflix, and my productive evening has suddenly become a remote fantasy.

Does any of this sound familiar? Accomplishing tasks and being productive is not as simple as it seems.

But let’s step back up for a moment and talk about productivity. Productivity is as important for governments and businesses as it is for academic and pharmaceutical research laboratories. The common goal for these diverse environments is to increase efficiency – whether that means GDP, net profit, drugs to market, research publications, or something else altogether – while maintaining or reducing the amount of time, labour, or capital associated with that increase in output.

Defining productivity can be a tricky task. Economists, for example, have different sub-definitions of productivity. Labor productivity, perhaps the easiest to understand, represents the total output (usually GDP of a country) divided by the total number of hours worked, giving a productivity value per hour for an average worker.

In science, productivity is most readily represented by research output. Research output can again be evaluated in different ways, but is most frequently assessed by the number of research publications. For many funding agencies and evaluation committees, research publications represent a significant indicator of research productivity.

The importance of hard work
Hard work is one mainstay of science that seems to be a crucial factor for success. Staying overnight in the lab for an experiment is considered by some to be a rite-of-passage in science. Most researchers, at one point or another, have probably had their own fair share of late-night experiences at the lab. For many scientists, evenings, weekends and holidays can readily turn into work hours, even if they are not physically present in the lab.

There is no monetary compensation, praise, or instant gratification for putting in all those “extra” hours. So why do some do this? The underlying motive might be passion for science, but the ultimate goal is productivity.

One outspoken advocate of hard work in science is Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. Quiñones-Hinojosa however, had an unconventional start in science. He began his journey as an illegal Mexican immigrant working as a farm labourer in California at 19. Barely speaking any English at the time, Quiñones-Hinojosa worked his way out of poverty to become a medical resident at Harvard Medical School and eventually a leading neurosurgeon and neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins.

Quiñones-Hinojosa is well-known for his superhuman work ethic, having put in 140 hour work weeks as medical resident. As a physician-investigator, he continues to maintain similar work hours and expects his lab members to follow his example. Quiñones-Hinojosa attributes his success to his work ethic. With over 150 publications alone since his lab opened in 2005, Quiñones-Hinojosa has indeed been successful in research. And not to be outdone by publication numbers alone, Quiñones-Hinojosa also has an h index of 28 – roughly 10 points higher than the average h index for other investigators in similar fields and timepoints in their careers. Altogether, Quiñones-Hinojosa’s research productivity is certainly a testament to his work philosophy.

Do hours translate into productivity?
In some ways, increasing working hours can translate to improved output. Simple math would suggest that following a 7 day work-week instead of a 5 day week equates to an extra 28.6% in available working hours.

However, it is easy to fall into the trap that putting in long hours equates to productivity. To be sure, extra hours allows for more experiments to be performed. Scientific research, however, places an emphasis on positive results, and if we accept the definition that research publications are a measure of productivity, then negative data will not help improve this metric. Simply put, in research, work equals “hours spent at the bench” multiplied by “positive data”.

Work, and therefore productivity, depends not only on the number of work hours spent on experiments, but also on the data that is obtained. If many hours are invested, but an experiment fails, then no work is done. Science instates a special constraint that for productivity to be greater than zero, the data must also be positive (pun-intended).
Taken to the extreme, long hours may even exact a penalty on research productivity. Creativity, a fundamental skill in science, is more easily achievable on a refreshed mind. According to Julie Overbaug, an investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, “an unremitting pace with no time to step back leads, over the long term, to a fatigued and unhappy team that is not operating at its best.” Overbaug stresses the importance of maintaining a work-life balance for research fecundity.

Indeed, the negative effects of overwork on performance have been well-studied. Tom DeMarco, a leading management consultant, has shown that for Fortune 500 companies and startups alike, relentlessly striving for reduced overhead and increased efficiency will result in overworked employees and a decrease in productivity. People are not machines, and unsurprisingly, DeMarco reveals that managers who are overworked are less creative and less effective within their organization.

Google, perhaps one of the most successful companies in recent history, is also best-known for its innovate workspace policies. Google provides workplace amenities including free food, yoga classes, leisure reading spaces, and even Lego playrooms for its employees, while also making it optional for employees to show up to work. By doing so, Google creates a work environment that no longer seems like work, and as a result, is home to some of the most creative and productive people in the world.

Although we probably won’t see a Lego playroom in the lab anytime soon, adopting some of these core principles might be useful for researchers looking to boost their productivity. Running a lab, for example, can be much like running a business, and investigators might consider adopting some of the lessons learned in business management for directing their own laboratories.

How can we be more productive?
Improving individual productivity in the lab can be as simple as adhering to deadlines for your project or roadmapping the experiments between you and a thesis. In general, there are a few steps one can take to improve productivity both within and outside the lab. First, it’s important to know that we have a finite amount of willpower. Studies have shown that willpower can fade, much like a muscle will tire after extended use. Knowing this, it is therefore important to prioritize tasks that require the most concentration (e.g. writing a manuscript over checking emails), and to minimize distractions whenever possible.

Getting distracted has been shown to have measurable effects on performance. A study at Carnegie Mellon showed that student volunteers who were briefly interrupted several times during a mock standardized exam finished with an average mark of 20% lower than the uninterrupted group.

Along these lines, multitasking has also been shown to have negative effects on performance. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do other experiments during your long incubation times, but it does mean that trying to accomplish too many tasks at once can negatively affect the quality of your work and your total productivity. Focusing on a single or as few tasks as possible, completing them and then moving on is another strategy is boosting overall productivity.

Being productive in science clearly involves a variety of strategies for different people. For some, longer hours might translate to increased output while others might find that working fewer hours results in a more refreshed mind and better overall productivity. In the end, effective research styles depend on the individual. Regardless of your work hours, following strategies to stay focused while minimizing distractions and avoiding excessive multitasking may be some ways of boosting productivity in the lab and obtaining your next publication all that much faster.

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Charles Tran

Founding Editor
Charles obtained his BSc in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta and is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. In his spare time, he likes to run, play the guitar, and experiment with recipes from his Gordon Ramsay cookbook.
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