Managing Your Day

June 23, 2014

Going from emergency to emergency putting out fires at work is no way to spend your day. Some days there is a crisis or things keeping coming up that do not let you manage your time effectively. Most days, though, you should be able to arrange your work day so you can work efficiently. This will leave you fresher for the inevitable out of control days.

Prioritize

Make your first task of the day to review what needs to happen and when. Prioritize all the tasks you have to do so that you make sure to accomplish the most important things and do not waste time with things that can wait until later.

Schedule time with yourself

Set aside time to think and work on complex problems. Meetings and collaborations will be written in on your schedule but do not neglect solo work or fit it in late in the day. The end of the day is when you are tired and not at your best. Make sure to protect your time to think. It can easily be chipped away by co-worker requests and last minute changes.

Plan on interruptions

Take into account how often you are interrupted throughout the day when planning your schedule. If possible schedule ‘office hours’ when people are welcome to ask you questions and discuss projects. Do not pretend interruptions do not exist when making your schedule; you will still have to deal with problems and issues that come up. Your plan for the day will fall by the apart if you do not anticipate this happening. Try to leave a little extra time in your schedule, knowing it will be eaten up by people dropping by and problems popping up throughout the day.

Block similar tasks together

Make blocks of time to handle the same type of tasks. Make all your phone calls at one time. Take a chunk of time to read and respond to emails. It’s easier on you to be efficient and do tasks that require the same software or equipment at the same time rather than jumping around.

Disconnect

Email, phone calls, and social media are increasingly intrusive and distracting. Disconnect from your electronics for big chunks of the day and stick to your schedule rather than being pulled in multiple directions when possible. Reply to messages when it is convenient for you unless there is an emergency.

Focus

Do not multi-task. Give your attention to whatever you are currently working on; stopping and starting projects will slow you down and not let you do your best work. Complete one task before switching to the next one. Logging out of email and turning your phone off will help with this.

Managing your work day will let you be more productive and feel less stressed while working. Prioritizing, scheduling time to think, allowing for interruptions, efficiently grouping tasks, disconnecting from electronics, and focusing on the task at hand are some ways to organize your time. It’s not possible to always stick to a plan but effectively managing your work day will allow you to be more efficient and should make your time more enjoyable.
This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.


When Is It Time To Leave?

June 16, 2014

 Sometimes it’s easy to know when to leave your current job: your manager is a complete jerk, you are being asked to do unethical or illegal things, or you just plain hate what you are doing. Job situations are usually not that extreme, making the decision to leave or stay in your current job complicated. You may not love your job but you do not hate it, your boss can be unpleasant sometimes but isn’t a terrible person, you may not find your career karmically rewarding but you certainly aren’t harming anyone or committing questionable acts. When is dissatisfaction enough to leave and find a new job?

 

In a perfect world, our jobs would be financially rewarding, intellectually challenging, changing the world for the better, and bring us into contact with interesting kind people. What imperfections are we willing to accept and what ones should push us to leave? What changes can you make to yourself or in your current job before deciding leaving is the best option?

 

If you find yourself not doing your best work, consider leaving. Some days you do not enough have the time or resources to do your best work. However, if you are consistently not doing good work that you are capable of doing, you need to examine your reasons. Performing poorly when you could be doing well is a sign that you are not engaging in your work. Start looking for ways to invest yourself in your job. Think about what things you enjoy in your job or what you like accomplishing in this field. If you cannot find a way to engage in your work, start looking for a new job or even a new career that you can be passionate about.

 

Needing some peace and quiet to get things done is understandable. Having to hide out from co-workers to be productive should not be a regular occurrence. Your co-workers may not be harassing you but if they are constantly preventing any real work from getting done, you should change your work environment. Work on time management strategies and try to find ways to manage your co-workers’ intrusions. If after trying different tactics, your co-workers are still a problem consider making a change and start job hunting.

 

You may not always completely agree with your company’s strategy but if you do not understand how or why decisions are being made, you may not fit into the corporate culture. You should not be left feeling decisions are being made at random, consider making changes if that happens. Look to work in different department or under a different manager if its a problem with management immediately above you. If its your company’s overall strategy, look to make a bigger change.
Job hunting, preparing and submitting resumes, going on interviews, and starting a new job can be a stressful process. You may not want to start it unless you are really ready to leave your current job. Think about your day to day experience at work and how much you are able to engage in what you are doing. If you are not able to, because of yourself, your co workers, or just overall company strategy, let go of this job and start looking for where you should really be.
This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.


Do More When You Have Less

May 26, 2014

I recently read about a group of amazing computer programmers who emigrated to the US. They came out of Russia, in a time when Russia had very few computers. With little knowledge of the English language, they were able to use their superior programming skills to not only survive, but thrive, and build highly lucrative and successful careers.

At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. If they had extremely limited access to computers, how did they even learn to program, let alone become experts? The solution actually comes from the scarcity – if you have limited access to something, you learn to make the most of what you do have. You spend a lot of time planning, and thinking about the best, most efficient ways to do things. You don’t just try things to see what happens (much), but must really learn how to take advantage of every second you have with the computer.

Similarly, if you have limited access to an NMR, HPLC, or other scientific equipment, you are going to plan your experiments carefully, making sure to get the most information from each minute you do have on the machine. You will most likely spend some of your more copious non-machine time thinking deeply about the science behind how the device works, what is special and unique about your samples, to find clever ways to get the most data in the smallest amount of time. This is often how new techniques are invented, and how existing ones are extended.

You don’t need to move to a country with limited resources to learn how to be efficient. What are the tools and techniques you currently take for granted? Which have you used for so long that you don’t really think about them any more? Can you take a step back, look with a fresh eye, and really think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it?

This philosophy can be extended to other parts of your life as well. What habits have you developed, and do they still make sense? We’ve all heard the joke about the woman who always cut the end off her pot roast and threw it away before cooking it. She always did it because her mother had always done it, and her mother did it because HER mother had always done it. But when the woman finally asked her grandmother why she did that, the answer was because her pan wasn’t big enough to fit the whole thing. This habit had been passed down for three generations – what started out as a practical solution to a current problem turned into an expensive waste when circumstances changed, and no one thought to question why they did things that way.

What office or lab habits have you developed, that you don’t think about anymore? Maybe now is the time to think about those things that you don’t think about, re-examine why you do them that way, and see if there’s a better way, a new tool, or an updated technique that can save you time or effort. Sure, there will be an initial investment to look into the options, examine the advantages and disadvantages of each one, and maybe learn a new tool, but that may be more than made up for by savings in time or additional information obtained in future experiments.

Change is always difficult, and most people avoid it whenever possible. It’s easier just to continue doing things the way they have always been done. But sometimes, investing a little time and effort to really think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it that way, can pay off big in the long run.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

 

 


Coping with Job Stress

May 19, 2014

The alarm goes off. Another day in the pressure cooker of work has begun. And there are only 24 hours to get more done today. If your mornings begin with the panic of job-related stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed, it’s time to implement some simple strategies for stress reduction. Stress is defined as a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium. This definition is vague, and for good reason. Stress is personal. The factors that disrupt one person’s “equilibrium” may be exactly what motivates another person. In other words, stress exists because you perceive it to exist. No one is injecting you with stress or slipping it into your morning coffee – you are fueling it. And that’s great news, because you can learn to manage it.

Take Control

The American Institute of Stress has determined a close connection between perceived stress and perceived control. People feel stressed when they feel a lack of control over a situation. Are there ways that you could gain more control over your job tasks, your work environment, your schedule, etc.? Certain factors of your job may be fixed, with little potential for more control. Look for opportunities to expand your control, and talk to your manager about ways that you could be more independent. Implementing control in your personal life can also reduce job stress. Simple changes like establishing a consistent workout schedule or focusing on eating a healthy diet can provide a sense of control and reduce stress. Look for any goal that you can work toward, whether job-related or not.

Focus on the Positives

There is a reason why people get paid to do their jobs. It is work, and it won’t always be enjoyable. Recognize and accept that there will be aspects of your job that you don’t like. Then stop focusing on those factors! Focus on the positive aspects of your job. This sounds obvious, but when you’re feeling stressed it’s easy to get caught up in the negatives. Start catching yourself when you think about something negative, and then redirect your thoughts back to something positive or encouraging. Over time, positive thoughts will become the default.

Maintain a Realistic Perspective

It’s only a job, after all. You don’t literally have the weight of the world on your shoulders. If you question the previous statement, you have an unrealistic perspective that allows stress to dominate your thoughts. Use stress as it is best used – as motivation. Feel the pressures of your tasks and deadlines, and then get busy and work hard. Don’t validate an unrealistic perspective by worrying about how you will reach impractical goals; instead, focus on what you have accomplished at the end of the day.

Don’t be a Work-aholic

It may seem like working endless hours is the only way to relieve the stress of a demanding job. If you do this, you will never feel “caught up” and stress-free. You will only be allowing job-related stress to enter into your personal time and overtake your life. Working late for an occasional project is one thing, but when long hours become status quo, stress is amplified. For most people, there is a point at which working longer does not correlate to significantly greater productivity. In other words, there is a point of diminishing returns. For me, this happens after about 9 or 10 hours of focused work. If I continue to work another few hours, there is not much to show for it. Recognize when your productivity starts to fade, and take that as your sign to call it a day. Go home, stop working, stop stressing, and enjoy life outside of work. After all, isn’t that why we work – to support and benefit our personal lives?

 

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.


Have Job, Will Travel

April 28, 2014

Many jobs include a travel requirement, which is often listed in the job description as one of the following percentages: 10%, 25%, 50%, and 75%. If you haven’t done much traveling for work, it can be difficult to know what you are comfortable with and what to expect from a job with a large travel requirement. Unlike a job that does not require travel, a job with a large travel component will greatly affect others in your life, such as a spouse or significant other, children, friends, and pets. You should weigh the pros and cons with those whose input is valuable to you, and then make the decision that works for your lives.

I have had jobs that were 10% and 25% travel, and I recently made the decision to take a new position that is 50-75% travel. Below are the main pros and cons based on my experience and my perspective.

Pros

Flexible schedule. If the job requires significant travel (50% or greater), there is a good chance that you will have an extremely flexible schedule. Because you may be departing or arriving at all hours of the day or night, you probably won’t have the standard schedule requiring a specific start time for the work day. You will likely have great flexibility to work when you want and break when you want, and you may even be able to work from home when you’re not traveling. This autonomy is a much-appreciated pro for me. It allows me to work when I am most productive and tailor my work day around my natural motivated/relaxed times.

Compensation. Most jobs that require significant travel also come with relatively higher salaries. There are often other benefits for those who do business on the road, including smart phones, laptops, iPads, and a car allowance if a personal car is used for business travel. In addition, points programs for flying, rental cars, and hotels add up quickly. These “perks” are not gifts from the company, because they are needed to enable work. However, they are also available for personal use, and the monetary value is not insignificant.

Travel. It may sound strange, but for some, the travel itself is a pro. Many people dream of traveling, and a job can offer the opportunity to see places you might not get to see otherwise. This can be particularly true for jobs that involve international travel. If you plan it just right, you can even piggy-back a personal vacation after business travel and have a spouse or friend join you on a trip.

Time goes fast. Compared to my previous jobs, which involved working in labs, offices, or cubicles, the time goes by much faster when I am traveling. There is never a dull moment or a chance to be bored. When I am on the road and I ask myself “would I rather be at my cubicle today?”, the answer has always been “no!”.

Cons
Long hours. Traveling, whether by plane or car, can consume the better part of the day. When you get to the hotel, you still have to catch up on emails, phone calls, or work on that presentation or report. The work day isn’t done just because you spent eight hours traveling. Thus, travel days can often be 16-hour days.

Working weekends. Many travel plans require that you leave home on Sunday and/or return home on Saturday in order to get where you need to be for the work week. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t work on the weekend. Sometimes it’s just a couple hours of emailing, and other times I’m gone the entire weekend.

Dynamic schedule. Travel plans are always being made and being changed. Thus, it is difficult to make personal plans, such as vacations or appointments that are scheduled months in advance. Many reservations and appointments will be canceled, rescheduled, and the cycle repeats.

Administrative tasks. Unless you are fortunate enough to have an administrative assistant, a significant portion of your time will be spent scheduling flights, hotels, meetings, etc. Then, all your expenses will need to be entered into expense reports. The time spent on these tasks adds up quickly.

If you are considering a job that requires travel, be sure you understand the details of the travel requirements and the compensation package. Discuss the options with those in your life who would be affected, and make the decision together. Nothing is set in stone – if you try something new and it’s not for you, there are other opportunities. Your career will likely be the sum of many experiences.

 

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.

 

 

 


Making the Most of Your Review

April 21, 2014

It’s that time of year when many people will be having their annual review with their managers. For some, it may be exciting to hear what their raise is or learn whether they have received a promotion. Others may dread receiving criticism or being reprimanded for poor performance. Whatever the case may be, everyone should strive to get the most out of the annual review process. It is a time to reflect, redirect, and look to the future. There are simple things you can do to prepare for an effective and valuable review.

Documentation

Each year, you should document your achievements throughout the year. Don’t assume that your manager will remember or even be aware of everything you do. Keep track of all significant contributions, especially those that extend beyond your job requirements or goals. Providing this to your manager will also help him or her prepare for the review, and it shows that you are focused on your own performance.

Reflection

Look back at the year and think about what you liked, disliked, excelled at, and struggled with. This will help you identify your skills and weaknesses, as well as reveal which challenges excite you. And that will help you determine where you want your career to go.

Review your manager

The review should be a conversation that goes both ways. Any manager worth their title should be open to listening to your opinion about how the two of you can work together more effectively. Think about the ways in which he or she has helped you reach your goals, as well as what could be done to increase your motivation or productivity. My manager always asks what he can do differently ­– what do I like about our interactions and also what is not helpful. It can be a difficult question to answer, but it also gives you a chance to see things from a manager’s perspective. They have to be prepared to provide constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement, and you should be ready to do the same if requested.

Check your ego

Unless you are absolutely perfect, there is always room for improvement. It is part of your manager’s job to identify ways you can improve and then deliver that message to you. Be prepared to listen to criticism and take in all in without responding defensively. If something annoys you or you disagree, give it a minute to sink in. Then, ask for more explanation. You may find that you and your manager were not on the same page regarding your priorities. Ask questions until the other perspective is clear, and then discuss any issue that still bothers you. Remember that giving criticism can be just as hard, if not harder, than receiving it.

Shape your future

How would you change your job? What do you think your goals should be? Tell your manager how you think your time is best spent. If a more flexible schedule would improve your productivity, say so. If you want to delegate certain tasks to redirect your time on other priorities, make a suggestion. Your goals and objectives for each year don’t have to be handed to you; they can be something you help shape and define. It’s your job – show an interest. Your initiative will be noticed.

 

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.

 

 

 

 


Getting Along with Coworkers

March 10, 2014

People spend a lot of time and money on education to gain knowledge and skills in a specific area. We take these skills into the work force and use them to perform well on the job. However, a large part of our performance at work has nothing to do with our ability to do the job well ­– it is based on our ability to get along with coworkers. Few people seek out training on how to get along with others at work. It may seem that we should acquire these skills through life experience, but time and time again managers report that the ability to get along with coworkers is a difficult skill to find in an employee.

Why? There are two main reasons: (1) When people get emotional, whether it’s anger, humiliation, jealousy, frustration, etc., they resort to instinctive behaviors. Some people get defensive and treat coworkers with disrespect; others avoid conflict rather than dealing with the issue. Neither approach is productive. (2) While these behaviors may have been accepted by others in our personal lives, they are not tolerated in the work place. Family members and close friends re-enforce negative behaviors by tolerating them, and thus people have not been challenged to use self-control in emotional situations. In our personal lives, if we don’t like others, we simply don’t hang out with them or minimize our interactions. This is not an option at work. We are required to work closely with all varieties of personalities, and we are expected to be respectful and resolve differences.

Everyone knows this, but many still struggle with how to control themselves or confront others in the heat of the moment. There are numerous resources devoted to advising people on this issue, including articles, seminars, coaching sessions, and quizzes to help you determine your ability to work well with others. I have found one simple trick that can work well, if you implement it at the right time: pretend that your boss or your HR rep is standing beside you. How would you speak to your coworkers if you knew that your boss or HR would hear everything you say and the tone of voice you use, as well as see that smirk on your face. The reality is that other coworkers may hear or see your interactions, and anything you say may very well get back to HR. Therefore, make sure you are able to stand behind all your words and actions at work if you have to explain yourself.

Keep in mind that “interactions” extend beyond face-to-face encounters. Emails and gossip can spread rapidly, and these can also reflect poorly on your ability to get along with coworkers. We all know those people who complain about others or talk behind people’s backs. I naturally assume that those people speak the same way about me when I’m not around. It can be tempting to “vent” about things that annoy or frustrate you, but at least try to wait until you get home. Or better yet, confront the issue to resolve it, while pretending that your boss and HR are standing beside you, of course.

 

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.