Beat the working-from-home blues

Four tips to help researchers stay productive in the pandemic.

2 June 2020

Ruth Gotian

Luis Villasmil/Unsplash

It’s tempting to set lofty goals for ourselves during this time of social distancing, such as writing grants, papers and conference proposals, and mentoring everyone in our network. But then, reality sets in.

We need to rethink ways of being productive during this time of stress and uncertainty.

Based on my nearly three decades of experience in higher and medical education and my research on the success of physician-scientists, I offer some suggestions to help you increase your productivity during social distancing.

1. Have something to show for all of that extra reading time

Remember those articles you were saving to read? Now is the perfect time to conduct a literature review. No one is better suited for the task than someone who is knee-deep in the field.

Ruth Gotian

Do a quick search on your favorite academic literature portal, such as PubMed or a preprint server. Start reviewing the papers and organizing them in a folder using a bibliography management tool, such as EndNote.

There are several online guides to help you start your process, such as this one written by Marco Pautasso from the Centre for the Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity in France, and this one by David Rowland from the Learning Hub at The University of Queensland, Australia.

The Food Science and Health Database has a comprehensive guide on literature review best practice.

It’s also a good idea to seek guidance from your principal investigator, postdoctoral fellow, or a scholarly librarian.

2. Expand your network – don’t let it shrink

Ninety percent of what we learn is done informally through our experiences and relationships, according to the Center for Creative Leadership, which means it’s important to try and replicate that ‘coffee room banter’ we’re missing while working from home.

Many of us are now having our regular business meetings using video-conferencing apps like Zoom, but you will find great value in organizing more informal gatherings with your friends and colleagues. Try setting up a weekly or fortnightly chat with a small group, and take turns inviting someone new to the call as a way to expand your networks.

On a recent Zoom call, one of my colleagues had an idea for a product development, but didn’t know how to execute or launch it. Someone else on the call connected her with a friend who specialized in this field, and a collaboration ensued.

On another call, a colleague mentioned that evenings were the hardest for her, because that’s when she felt the most stressed and isolated. So several of us decided to take turns calling each other every evening to check in. We now have a bi-weekly social Zoom chat where only non-work related issues are discussed.

3. Explore new writing tools and techniques

Writing an entire manuscript or even one section of it might seem daunting, particularly when your home might pose many more distractions than a regular workplace environment.

That’s why methods such as the Pomodoro Technique are so useful – try breaking up your writing time into 25-minute sprints, instead of setting yourself a goal of trying to write all day, or for an indefinite period.

Get as much done during those 25 minutes as you can, and take a break. Repeat this cycle of writing sprints for as long as you are able to focus. The odd amount of time makes the task less intimidating.

4. Reimagine your workday

Not every day is going to be productive, but it doesn’t have to be 9-5. Shift your workflow so that you’re doing more active tasks during times of less distraction, such as designing experiments, writing, editing, creating figures, or working on grants.

When you feel depleted and less focused, switch to more passive work, such as reading articles and talking to colleagues.

Break things down into small parts and start with the areas that you are most comfortable with. Build on those accomplishments to gain momentum for more difficult tasks and consider adding collaborators from within your network to help you complete your short- and long-term goals.

Ruth Gotian is the chief learning officer at Weill Cornell Medicine’s department of anaesthesiology in New York City and former assistant dean for mentoring and executive director of its Mentoring Academy.

This article has been contributed by a member of the Nature Index community. See our pitching guidelines here.

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