Monday, April 6, 2009

Tracking progress

Katie over at Minor Revisions just wrote a post about Guidelines for managing work/life/sanity. It's a great post, I'd recommend checking it out. I was especially interested in her guideline for tracking progress/Keeping records.

I'm working on a presentation for a few days from now and I was dreading it because I felt like I didn't have anything to show... until I started outlining the slides and realized I'll be fine. There aren't any major breakthroughs of mechanistic insights into how protein X does function Y, but there are some smaller steps of progress along the way.

Keeping track of small step progress is a weak point for me, I feel like I'm working but like I have nothing to show for it. And since the past several weeks have been a challenge in all sorts of ways, I know for a fact that I'm not being as productive as I should be. I'm setting up experiments that I never take the time to finish, or I'm counting on one or two key things for making a figure for the presentation, and when they crap out on me and don't work (trouble with transfection efficiency it seems, they're experiments that I have very little past experience with, and I think I'm struggling with some technical issues) I'm feeling left stranded. Still I am getting some things done. I'm in the tool building stage of this new project, and I've prioritized tool making over hypothesis testing because of the time frame invovled in making the tools. I'll get my part of the construction out of the way and by the time the finished product is ready, I will have had some time to test out a few more functional experiments. It's a logical decision, but I just wish I had more to "show". It's hard to make a figure of your midi-prepped DNA constructs...

So how can I make it better? I'm already constantly making to do lists, but I find myself adding more to them than I am crossing off, so rather than help me see my progress, they add to my stress level because it looks like I've done almost nothing because what I can cross off the list is so much smaller compared to what I have left to do. I think I should start making a slide whenever I have a finished product to hand off or work with. These are obviously never going to be paper figures, but they will help me for things like group presentations and progress reports. We'll see... for now, I have to get this presentation ready and then get back to the bench for more of those little steps.


  1. Thanks, Jenn!

    I was discussing this at breakfast yesterday - how to see progress and note accomplishments when projects never seem to be neatly completed - and someone suggested project maps. I'm supposed to take a high level view of a project, define important steps, determine if they can be done in parallel or are sequential and allocate time in some sensible way. As you make progress, you cross off certain paths that are either done or rendered useless and continue to draw new maps every month/week (I think it depends on how much things change). I'm going to try it - I'll let you know if it works.

    I think making slides - exactly as you describe - seems smart. It'll remind you of what you've done/know and might trigger some brilliant thought when it's time to refine a presentation or begin writing the paper. I hope you find something effective - working a lot and feeling like you haven't done very much sucks.

  2. What about, instead of making one huge to-do list, you break it down in to weekly increments (or even daily)? That way, you'll see what progress you're making in a short period of time, and you'll see just how much you're getting done.