Organization may not be on your mind when you walk into your lab, but it enters your thoughts when you can’t find something. Let us help!
In the last article, I discussed laboratory fridge and freezer organization, but acknowledged that even the tips provided may not be enough for a lab that as accumulated years of material. Rather than just limiting this follow-up blog to organizing those vital appliances that harbor years and years of research samples, I thought I would expand. So let’s talk about what it takes to organize a laboratory that’s in some need of it.
1. Stop Waiting for Motivation:
It’s time to face the truth. You will probably never wake up excited to organize your lab. Rather than putting off the chore until that day comes, you have to bring out your inner parent and tell yourself to just do it. Silence that “devil” on your shoulder and set a weekend aside on the calendar, get your music playlist ready, get plenty of rest the night before, and repeat to yourself “No Excuses.”
2. Have Certain Supplies Ready Days Before the Project:
Once you begin to undertake the organizational process, you will most certainly run into a situation where you could use a something like a hammer or tape or some storage tubs or garbage bags. And your need could cause a dead-end in your mission. In an effort to uphold this “No Excuses” mentality, it’s best to be prepared before you get started or you will easily find a legitimate reason to sop. Instead, a few days before, get out a sheet of paper and walk through the lab. Open doors, look at walls, and start to build a list of some things you might need. Refer to number three for some additional ideas. It might be a good idea to overestimate quantities because you can always return items and you decrease your risk of running out. Of course, there will be unanticipated needs that arise as you start to organize, but at least you were better prepared, and it might not force you to stop the entire job.
3. Think Like MacGyver:
Lab tape, binder clips, Velcro, magnets, 3M hooks and hot glue guns are your friends. One of the biggest challenges, especially if you do have years of research saved up, is finding space. This means you will have to think very creatively about utilizing any open areas you do have. Those MacGyveresque tools are really going to help in mounting things to walls or the edges of shelves. A perfect example of this is when I had to help move a lab into a new building. We found a perfect cabinet (perhaps the only cabinet) for our ice buckets; however, the lids wouldn’t fit. Thankfully, some of the walls were reinforced with metal, so we stuck magnets to the lids and mounted them to the wall above the cabinet. Think like MacGyver and you’ll find a lot of room.
4. Be Firm About Throwing Stuff Away:
This tip pairs well with number one because it’s mentally taxing to think about. Deciding whether or not to throw something away is a painful part of organization. It’s not that parting with an object is difficult; it’s the fact that evaluating your personal needs can be very tough. Just like in number one, you have to be firm and force yourself to do it. If you’re not sure about a sample, consult old lab notebooks to see if it had any significance. When in doubt, make up a rule and stick to it.
5. Old/Broken Equipment:
When moving into our new lab, I remember hearing my mentor say something along the lines of, “I have never used this, but I’m just afraid to get rid of it.” If it is a piece of equipment that you spent a few thousand dollars on, that fear is a little more justified. If it was inherited, which was the case in my example, then it’s time to let go. Either resell, give away or pitch. The same goes for slightly inoperable pieces of equipment that you have said for 10 years you’ll fix. If you inherited it or didn’t spend much on it, get rid of it.
6. Finding an Organizational System that Works for You:
In the Fast Track article “Can a Disorganized Person Become Organized.” Fast Track expert Anita Bruzzese said a key to organizing a workspace is finding processes and tips that suit your needs. “If you’re a Post-It addict, for example, then buy yourself a corkboard where you only place those notes, or use a whiteboard to jot down the ‘to do’ items you need,” Bruzzese said. One thing that’s important is to think adaptively and progressively. If you have an organizational method in place that gets you half way there, explore some ideas on how to improve the system.
7. Don’t Get Nostalgic:
This tip is almost impossible to follow, but I want to bring attention to the idea so that the moment you do get caught up in any old memory, you think about number seven here and get back on track. This may be less of a problem if you’re not as sentimental, but for those of you who are, old cards, pictures, notebook doodles etc. that you find in lab bench drawers are going to bring back memories. Indulge a little by going through those items quickly, but if you catch yourself spending more than five minutes reminiscing, think about this rule and refocus yourself.
8. Delegating and Designating:
During my lab move experience, it was just me, one other student and my mentor. But some of the other labs that had to move had several grad students and under grad students helping out – “Slave Labor” was the joke. If it’s not just you who will be taking on the organizational process, then it’s very important to form a plan among the team about how to conquer it. Delegate tasks to each person. And since delegating is hard sometimes, assign the most menial tasks first – alphabetizing chemicals, condensing old binders, logging products into excel, etc. Come up with rules on what can automatically be thrown away, what must automatically be kept, who has what section, what cabinets are untouchable - whatever works for you. Start simply and more ideas on how to delegate will come to you.
9. Clean as You Go:
If you’re pulling stuff off shelves, going through items and then putting them back up, you might also want to run a wet cloth over those shelves too. Clean as you go so that you can really enjoy the look of the results after you’re done.
Once you’ve completed the big job, your next challenge is to keep up with it. Referring back to the Fast Track article, Alexandra Levit, another one of their experts, suggested that one of the issues with organization is governing what comes in. This is very true. What you don’t want to happen after you have gone through such a cumbersome job is to watch it unfold within a week.
11. Pinterest and Other Social Avenues:
Remember, even though you work in a science lab, it’s worth exploring domestic tips for organization. For more guides, you might want to check out Pinterest. A research lab isn’t the only place that becomes disorganized, and a lot of business and household tips are broad enough to work in science. Not only does Pinterest have great guides and infographics, but it also has suggestions on organizational products you might have never considered buying. Of course you might also want to look to YouTube for tips and tricks. And if you’re feeling handy, checkout instructions on how to build organizational containers on Instructables.
12. Reward Yourself:
This goes without saying, but it’s really important. And rather than coming up with a treat last minute, I suggest preplanning some fun event you can do to reward yourself afterwards. The idea of coming up with it before the job commences is that you have something that you’re working for. Even though you probably won’t be struck with motivation to take on the job of organizing your laboratory, this might synthesize it a little bit.
Hopefully this article better addresses the organizational needs of a researcher who has accumulated a lot over the years. And even for those of you who are just starting in a brand new lab, both this article and the last one will be very useful in implementing an organizational plan for yourself. There’s no doubt you would prefer to spend your time in other ways, but the moment you do decide to go for it, remember these tips and explore others on the Internet. Laboratory organization is an incredibly mental task, but we’re researchers; we know how to identify problems and solve them!
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"To understand the universe is to understand math." My 8th grade
math teacher's quote meant nothing to me at the time. Then came
college, and the revelation that the adults in my past were right all
along. But since math feels less tangible, I fell for biology and have
found pure happiness behind my desk at GoldBio, learning, writing
and loving everything science.
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