Monday, April 12, 2010

Time Saving Strategies (Part 3)

This is the third part of a series on time saving strategies: 1. Electronic communications (phone, email), 2. face-to-face communications (meetings, office drop-ins), and.... 

3. Other activities that require substantial time, but do not contribute to my scientific productivity.

  a. Scientific reviews.  Discussions with colleagues suggest that more and more of them are simply refusing to do any reviews for journals because they feel so overwhelmed, and the effort is not usually appreciated by superiors at performance review time. This is an extreme, and in my view inappropriate, reaction for professionals. We can't expect colleagues to review our papers if we do not reciprocate. A colleague told me the other day that when he inquired about a manuscript submitted many months earlier, he was told that they had asked and been turned down by 12 potential reviewers and were still looking for someone to accept the invitation to review.

I think if we dealt with reviews a bit more efficiently, however, we might be more inclined to do our share.

I found I was spending a lot of time doing reviews for journals.  I not only accepted too many assignments, but I spent too much time on unimportant aspects of the paper (editing) or tried to make suggestions for improvement when the work was fatally flawed. Some solutions I've implemented over the years:

     i. I decide how many reviews I will do per year and stick to this number. If I've published a paper in Journal X, then I will accept two review assignments from that journal during that year.  Requests from other journals are considered based on how much effort will be required, up to my quota for the year.  This number can be raised or lowered depending on other factors. Currently, I'm serving as assoc. editor for an international journal, which is taking a lot of time, so I'm turning down most requests from other journals.

     ii. I don't review a paper just because I'm interested in finding out what they did (i.e., it's very close to my area and I'm curious). If it's good, it'll get published and I'll see the information eventually. If it's not, then I didn't need to see it.

     iii. When I get a request for a review in my inbox, I don't respond immediately. Some editors send out requests to several people, and when two respond, the remainder are dis-invited.

     iv. When doing a review, I force myself to read the entire paper without stopping to make any comments or correcting any language problems.  I focus entirely on the science.  If there is a fatal flaw, then I focus in on that and don't expend any more time making suggestions for revision (because it's likely that the paper will be rejected and my time will be wasted).  If the work is solid, but the writing or some other aspect is weak, then I will make general comments and suggestions.  I do not spend time correcting typos or grammatical errors, which copy editors will handle later.  If the paper is excellent, then I will point out any minor edits that will improve understanding or presentation of the data.

  b. Administrative tasks. Filling out forms, doing performance reviews, etc.

     i. Automate as much as possible (save templates, set up automatic replies to frequent questions, prepare SOPs to guide routines of staff so that you don't have to repeat instructions)

    ii. Delegate (have others fill out forms or find information that takes time to locate, do purchasing and associated paperwork)

    iii. Make decisions quickly for tasks that are either not critical or can be reversed easily (in other words, don't spend hours agonizing over something that can be corrected later)

     iv. If you have a large staff, performance reviews may become time consuming or fall at a time when you have other important deadlines.  One way to decrease the time you spend evaluating subordinates is to have them write up a detailed summary of their accomplishments and progress on projects as well as plans and expectations for the next evaluation interval.  This approach lets the employee or student ensure that no accomplishment is overlooked and frees you from having to locate and collate all this information yourself.

For your own performance reviews, keep a running log of accomplishments by category or routinely add these to your CV.  Don't wait until right before your review (or when you start looking for a job) and then try to remember all of them.

      v. Write out directions for complicated procedures--ones that you spent a lot of time figuring out--so that you don't have to "reinvent the wheel" every time.  I have in mind here those annoying (non-science) tasks that happen so infrequently that they don't go into long-term memory (at least not mine).  All together, these procedures can add up to a lot of time wasted if you have to work them out from scratch each time.  I keep an electronic folder containing directions for various admin. or computer-based tasks and any shortcuts I've discovered.  You would be surprised at how many people fail to do this...even protest that they don't have time....

Well, that's all I can think of at the moment.  I'm sure some of you have pet peeves that consume your time and energy and that don't directly contribute to your science productivity.  Feel free to add to my list.

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