FROM THE ARCHIVE: Manage Your Time with a Tomato

April 25, 2016

tomatoHave you ever felt overwhelmed with all of the projects you are juggling at work, and as a result, felt that you weren’t doing any one of them as well as you could?  Perhaps you have felt swamped, juggling so many projects that you are unsure where–or even how–to start.

There is an intriguing time management tool…a tomato. Maybe you have heard of–or used–the Pomodoro Technique™, but its properties are quite simple and can be applied anytime, anywhere.

According to the website, “Creator Francesco Cirillo was a university student in Rome struggling to stay on task. He decided to challenge his powers of concentration using what he had at hand – a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato. That was the first Pomodoro (tomato in Italian). Bright red, iconic, and charmingly low-tech, it’s the perfect invitation for getting things done.”

Essentially, the technique involves writing a to-do list early in the day, setting your timer (kitchen, electronic, web-based, or otherwise) for 25 minutes, and focusing on only one task from your list during that time. When the timer goes off, you have completed one “pomodoro.” You put a check mark next to that task on your list, indicating the completion of one pomodoro, and take a 5-minute break. After that, you set your timer once again and go for another 25 minutes, again focusing on one task alone, though it may or may not be the same task you worked on previously. After completing 4 “pomodoros” in a row, you take a longer break, from 15-30 minutes.

The claims made on the Pomodoro website include:

  • “Enhance focus and concentration by cutting down on interruptions!”
  • “Boost motivation and keep it constant!”
  • “Refine the estimation process, both in qualitative and quantitative terms!”
  • “Improve your work or study process!”

This technique seemed so simple, and its claims so lofty, we had to try it out for ourselves.

Since we don’t have a pomodoro of our own, we opted for a simple online clock. Per the instructions on the PT website: list all of the projects on the “Activity Inventory Sheet,” and from those chose four tasks to list on the “To-Do Today” sheet.  Even thought the site offers worksheets, we used Excel to track projects. With the timer set for 25 minutes, we went to work. When the timer went off, we had a five minute break to grab a drink of water. We then reset the timer, and went back to work for another 25 minutes.

By the end of the day, we felt a great sense of accomplishment, having completed many pomodoros–and many goals for that day.  If you regularly struggle with internal interruptions (“What’s for dinner?” “What do we need at the grocery store?” “What time is that meeting again?” etc.), then this might be a particularly good technique for you.

We found the length of one pomodoro (25 minutes) so short that is was easier to fend off these interruptions. Conversely, the amount of time spent on one pomodoro (25 minutes) was in fact long enough to focus intently and not lose concentration on the task at hand. Further, knowing how many pomodoros a particular task actually took to complete was valuable information I used throughout the day and into the next.

All from one little tomato. Check it out and see if this time management tool works for you. If so, let us know with a comment below.

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FROM THE ARCHIVE – Get More Done: Take A Break

March 11, 2016

Image of four blue folder with one red folder slightly ajar from bookcaseFind yourself swamped with work but unable to focus?  Ever wonder how to quit procrastinating?  At OITE, we often get asked about strategies and tips on how to improve one’s time management and productivity. This From the Archive post offers unlikely advice on how to handle these work challenges.


The title seems a little contradictory.  How is it that you can get more work done, but spend less time working?  According to a New York Times article about a study from the University of Toronto Scarborough, it is because small breaks make you more efficient.  The study authors suggests that the brain “becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover, he explains — much as a weight lifter needs rest before doing a second round of repetitions at the gym.”

So here are a few of the tips from the article:

  • Symptoms of needing to take a break are drifting or day dreaming.
  • If you are in “the zone,” keep working.  It isn’t working hard that drains your brain, it’s when you are forcing yourself to go on when you really need a break.
  • Taking too many breaks leads to procrastination.  So, be smart about it.  Everything in moderation

Here are a few ideas for break:

  • Go for a walk – Even just doing laps on your floor gets you moving and gives you a break from your work.  If you are at the NIH and don’t want to melt in this heat wave, consider walking the track in the basement of building 10.
  • Go get a coffee (or something else) with a co-worker – After all, you have to walk to where the coffee is and having someone with you makes it less likely you will just sit and start thinking about work.  According scientists who have spent time in England, many labs there still take a break in the afternoon for tea (or other beverage) for about 30 minutes.  In fact, there is often a break in the morning as well for around the same amount of time.
  • Stand at your computer while you read the OITE Careers Blog – The article mentions that standing while doing your work can help relieve some of the brain drain.
  • Take a nap – We are aware this is not a culturally acceptable practice here in the USA, even if it is supported by science.  However, in other cultures a break in the afternoon to rest is quite common.  The Spanish Siesta is famous, and so I asked a visiting fellow and friend from Spain about how the “Siesta” works in the research community.  She pointed out the siesta is as much about food as it is about sleep.  The main goal is to sit down together around the table and have a meal as a family or group of friends.  If you can grab a siesta in that time, that’s even better.

Working hard is a hallmark of the research profession.  Most scientists I know take a lot of pride in putting in long hours.  We are certainly not suggesting that any of us not work hard.  However, research suggests that taking breaks can help us work smarter as we work hard.  And isn’t that what we all want to do?


“There Aren’t Enough Hours in the Day” – Time Management Tips

November 25, 2014

Everybody seems busy today. In fact, according to an op-ed in the New York Times, many Americans are addicted to this ‘busy trap.’ Guilt and anxiety seem to arise if you aren’t managing multiple projects at once. Because of this daily grind – self-imposed or not – many aren’t able to find time to plan and strategize their career development. Most job seekers lament that there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

How then can you take back control and find the time that is needed in order to effectively accomplish your goals?

Keep a Time Journal
If you wonder at the end of your day why your ‘To Do’ list is not complete, then you should analyze your day. There are bound to be projects that take longer than expected and you will undoubtedly have demands placed upon you from others during your workday; however, these factors shouldn’t impact your ability to find time for your truly important tasks.   Being cognizant of how your time is spent is the first step in identifying potential areas for improvement.

Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Research from the University of California, Irvine showed that professional are interrupted every 11 minutes and on average it takes them 23 minutes to get back on task. One of, if not the biggest, interrupters at work is email. So, unless you want to spend your workday reacting to other people’s priorities, it will be important to implement some new time-saving strategies, including:

  • Start your day offline.
    For many, this will be a tough habit to break. Checking work email is often one of the first tasks in any given day; however, take ten minutes at the start of your day to check your daily goals and tasks in order to maximize your workday.
  • Check your email on a schedule.
    One email can pull you in; later, you find yourself two hours behind. Eliminate the distraction by shutting down your inbox entirely. It could help to silence the pings from your smartphone as well. The goal here is not an entire day of email radio silence, but a more systematic approach to the way you check email. Perhaps you only need to check it on the hour and allot yourself fifteen minutes to do so. Hopefully, implementing your own structure will help you feel more in control of your inbox and your time.

Take Time Off
It might seem counterintuitive, but taking time off to relax and recharge will actually help you to be more focused and productive when you are at work. The problem is that many employees don’t take advantage of paid time off. More than 40% of Americans who receive paid time off didn’t take advantage of their full benefits. Add this to the fact that about 1 in 4 Americans doesn’t have a job where they get paid time off. Whether self-imposed or employer-imposed, not taking enough time off has a direct impact on your time management and overall work performance. Bear this fact in mind as we approach the holiday season.

Effective time management is all about planning for the future, setting goals, prioritizing tasks and actually monitoring all of these factors. Time management skills need to be continually practiced so don’t waste any more time and start implementing some of your own strategies today. What has worked for you? Comment below with other tried and true time management tips.


How We Learn

June 27, 2013

Post written by Sharon Milgram, Director of The Office of Intramural Training & Education.

Science careers, at or away from the bench, require us to be life-long learners. To be successful, we are always learning – and teaching – new skills. While many of us enjoy this, it also comes with frustrations and challenges. In considering how we learn, I was struck by the excellent and concise explanation of the stages we typically go through as we learn and develop new skills. I found this in a short book entitled “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager” written by Ken Blanchard. Intramural trainees can find the book in the OITE Career Library, and it is widely available in other libraries and on-line. In this book, Blanchard summarizes the four stages of learning: enthusiastic beginner, disillusioned learner, cautious performer, and high achiever. This summary is helpful to us as life-long learners and as colleagues, mentors and supervisors of others in our work groups.

At the outset, enthusiastic beginners are confident and excited. However, this confidence and the excitement of a new challenge can get in the way as enthusiastic beginners often forget how challenging a task might be. Enthusiastic beginners need a lot of supervision and direction so they stay focused on learning the fundamentals and solidifying the basics. After a short while, and after a few (too many) mistakes, enthusiastic beginners typically become disillusioned learners. We realize how hard it is to truly develop that new skill and doubt starts setting in. In this stage, we need support and encouragement to stick with it. Once we gain some proficiency we enter the cautious learner phase; we are more proficient and more confident and as a result we learn more quickly. In other words, success breeds success — and we are on our way toward becoming a high achiever. At this time, we need the right balance between supervision and independence, as one can only become a high achiever by taking risks and learning from our mistakes.

Whether you are a postbac or summer intern learning how to do PCR for the first time, a grad student preparing for your first committee meeting, a postdoc mentoring your first summer intern, or a senior fellow ready to launch your independent career, remember this simple model of how we learn. Be proactive and find support, encouragement and direction when you need it. If you are the supervisor/mentor, use these strategies to help your employees and mentees learn. It may just keep you going when you get stuck and will help you be compassionate as your colleagues, students and mentees learn new things as well.


Tips on Conducting a Job Search Anywhere

May 20, 2013

Do you need to find a job in a geographically limited area far from your current location? Maybe your significant other just found a dream job, or maybe you just always wanted to live in Seattle, WA – whatever the reason, a remote and geographically limited job search poses a distinct set of challenges that require some strategizing to overcome. Here are a few thoughts that may help from a person who recently was searching for a job in Dallas, TX, while living in Bethesda, MD.  These tips are useful in any job search, but particularly for conducting a remote search.

Begin the search early. Job options tend to be reduced when they are limited by geography. Imposing boundaries on the location means relying on fewer potential employers. The more time you allow for finding a job, the better.

Use your network. Your network should be your first resource in a remote job search. Know the histories of the people in your network, and keep up with their current locations. Ask people currently or historically linked to the area for suggested companies or connections. Some of your contacts may work for a company with an office in that location and may be willing to send out feelers on your behalf. Always ask permission before using a contact’s name or, even better, ask them to provide an introduction.

Do not limit yourself to professional contacts. Talk to friends, alumni associations, volunteer organizations, members of your religious institute, or anywhere else you may find an unexpected lead. If you are a member of a professional or volunteer organization, contact the local chapters to make some connections. Seek local people at conferences. Make your job search as widely known as possible – the more exposure the better. Conducting a secretive job search poses more of a challenge, but typically you can advertise pretty broadly without you current boss finding out.

Use job Sites. Job sites will be your friend. Most career sites filter searches to a specific area or radius around an area. Check out the state labor department for local search engines. The City of Dallas website had links to six local search engines.

Know your business. If you are looking for an academic job, search all the universities. For me, looking for a job in science policy in Dallas meant searching anywhere that might have a policy/government relations office, like non-profit organizations and universities. After finding some leads, go back to your network and look for the connections. Cold e-mails to directors or assistant directors (managers) located in offices of interest can end up in future leads or even a job.  So don’t be afraid to write them a note.  None of the offices I contacted were hiring at the time, but I continued to receive several leads from the people I contacted with in those initial cold e-mails.

Be flexible. Compromising a little on the job you are seeking may go a long way towards finding a position. As a person recently preparing for a science policy career in Washington, DC, where policy jobs are plentiful, now moving to Dallas, TX, where science policy jobs are next to non-existent, I had to broaden my search to jobs with similar skills requirements and career goals. After some considerable research, I found a job in the communications office of a local university requiring many of the same skills and tasks that I enjoyed in science policy.

To recap: start early, use your network heavily, use search engines wisely, cold call companies of interest, and use your network even more.

What are your suggestions or experiences for a remote job search?


Finding Time for Career-Enhancing Activities

May 6, 2013

Research is your top priority as a graduate student or postdoc. That, coupled with your passion for science, may drive you to devote every waking moment to your research.  You love discovery.  You need to publish.  However, regardless of your career aspirations, your regular routine may benefit from a slight change of pace.  Maybe there is a certain career you’ve always wanted to explore or skill set you’ve wanted to develop.  Participating in activities outside of lab can help you learn a lot about yourself, forge meaningful networks, and potentially guide your future career path.

Earlier, we discussed serving on the career symposium committee and how to make the most out of such opportunities.  Other activities may range from writing an article for a newsletter, organizing a monthly seminar series or social event, teaching a course or leading a journal club, taking the initiative to start a new interest group, or serving as a co-chair of a postdoc or graduate student association (such as FelCom or the Graduate Student Council). There is a variety of opportunities with a range of time commitments to explore.

Choose the right moment, but make the time: Develop a comfortable balance between your research and activities, and never overextend yourself.  For both graduate students and postdocs, the “middle-years” of your fellowships are generally good times to participate.  Don’t get heavily involved when just starting your fellowship or when your lab is in the midst of preparing for a sensitive event like a grant deadline or a BSC review.  For grad students, avoid periods of time when you have a high level of academic responsibilities.  Perhaps it feels like there is no perfect time or personal/family commitments make it difficult to participate in events that extend into the evening.  Though, let’s say you devote 5% of the “standard” 40 hour work to such career-enhancing activities.  That’s 2 hours a week!  Look at your schedule from that perspective and determine how you can find the time.

Do the job right or don’t do it at all: Don’t participate in an activity if you are just looking to add a line to your CV, and don’t agree to take a role if you are not truly enthusiastic about it.  That line on your CV alone won’t do or say anything if you can’t support it by explaining the transferrable skills that you may have acquired.  Make sure you clearly understand what is expected for each one before you volunteer.   If you don’t fulfill your responsibilities, it could irreparably damage your reputation with colleagues and staff.  Give plenty of warning if you have to respectfully miss a meeting or withdraw from an activity.  Again, research is your top priority and everyone understands if extenuating circumstances arise.

Taking the next step: Talk to your mentor about your participation in any activities during normal working hours.  If your mentor isn’t too enthusiastic about your participating in a certain activity, start with an event that doesn’t take up much time.  Explain to your mentor how these activities can be important for your future career path and show, specifically, how small the time commitment really is for many cases.  Show through experience that these activities are not interfering with your ability to get new data or proceed with your research.

The NIH (or your university) is a great place to explore your skills and interests both in and out of the lab.  If you choose the right activity, plan ahead and manage your time efficiently, you can significantly enrich your experience here.


Serving on a Committee: Make the Most of the Opportunity

September 24, 2012

The OITE starts preparing for the large events (like the NIH Career Symposium) about 9-12 months in advance.  When we can, we like to form committees of NIH fellows eager to help plan, organize and execute these events.   It helps us to get fresh ideas from the fellows’ perspective, and it gives fellows the chance to build valuable skills to highlight on their resumes.  Here are three ways to take full advantage of committee membership.

  • Leadership – Being on a committee gives you a chance to be a leader.  However, you have to take the initiative make that happen.  Vocalize your ideas by making suggestions for speakers, session topics, themes, etc.  Volunteer for tasks (especially if an organizer is needed), host speakers or moderate a session.
  • Administration –There is quite a bit of administrative work that goes into large events at the NIH.  Determining the number of rooms you need and how many chairs you need in each room; Deciding what sessions or speakers to put in what rooms; setting schedules and agendas for the whole event and the people participating in the event are only just a few examples.  Actively engage with the OITE advisor to make sure you can understand this process.
  • Networking –Networking is about laying the foundation for a relationship with someone.  Participate fully in all committee work and find common ground with your fellow teammates.  Make sure to greet and host speakers.  After the event find ways to cultivate networking connections with your fellow committee members, other event attendees, and speakers.

We have had a lot of people who serve on a committee later ask the OITE advisors for a letter of recommendation. We love to write strong letters for our committee members, so make sure that we see all the work that you are doing and how you pulled your weight in the team.

These are only a few of the skills you can establish while working on a committee.  There are others like writing, editing, advertising, analyzing and evaluating the event, and many more.  However, you won’t get the ones you want by just signing up to be on the planning committee.  Work with your OITE advisor to talk about your career goals and to identify which jobs on the committee will set you up for success.

We want you to have a great experience on a committee.  Do the best job you can, but make sure not to over-commit yourself.  Together we make the events that make training at the NIH special.