How many times in the morning have you felt that you are playing catch up? Like the day is already gone and you must now rush to make sure you are productive? I encourage you to take back your mornings and enhance your time management using these 6 approaches.

congerdesign / Pixabay

Mornings are hard for me even though I consider myself a “morning person”. The toll of graduate school stress, tiredness from working/thinking for 12-14 hours/day, and because I have an autoimmune disease usually means I need 6.5-8.5 hours of sleep each night.

Well if you leave lab at 11 pm that doesn’t lead to an early morning the next day.

Some may argue that whether you start early, regular, or late it doesn’t matter as long as you are putting in the same amount of time. However, I’ve noticed a huge difference in my approach to a day’s experiments when I start early vs. later. Not to mention the many benefits to having a good start to the day.

1: Leave yourself unfinished work

The biggest mistake I have made is pushing to finish something that always takes longer than you plan. Next thing you know it’s 12:30 am. Congratulations. You’ve finished that (insert seemingly important task) and you’ve now destroyed the possibility of waking up early.

In fact, if you leave yourself something to accomplish in the morning, that you can handle while still partially asleep, it will help wake you up. What works well for me is to start an article before bed. Maybe read the abstract and a little of the background.

Then stop.

This leaves you with a defined task to accomplish in the morning.

The same can be done with writing. All that matters is it’s importance to you, so you are driven to finish the task when you wake up. Now you are ready to start your morning routine.

2: Have a morning ritual 

Being consistent in the morning will ensure your mindset is level from day to day. This is the most flexible of the 6 approaches because it really is dependent on what type of things give you value.

Here are some recommendations:

  1. After finishing your left over work wash your face. It will give you a fresh start.
  2. Drink water. Your body needs hydration.
  3. Exercise. I prefer at night, but some mornings I just need it. If you can incorporate it into your daily commute to lab that is even better.
  4. Breakfast. I always make coffee to go (saves lots of money) and prefer oatmeal or simply fruit.
  5. Shower. Don’t skimp on taking care of your health no matter how busy you get.
  6. Meditation. Personally I like to have a small cup of coffee on my deck and watch the squirrels play in the trees. Enjoying nature is essential for resetting my mind for the day ahead.
  7. Ditch your phone. You can easily waste 30 mins on social media without even realizing it. And don’t check your email.
  8. Know your to-do list

3: Have a to-do list

Natalie B  A few months ago our PI made it mandatory to send a weekly plan every Sunday night. It took awhile for everyone to adopt it into their routine, but it has many benefits. I suggest having a weekly plan, but also making a daily plan the night before. This way you know what you want to accomplish right when you walk in to lab.

Some benefits include:

  • You no longer have to remember the mental notes you’ve made.
  • It allows you to be more efficient with your time. You will see where you can multi-task and where you have to really focus.
  • You’ll realize where your priories are. If you constantly have to keep pushing the same item to the next day you’ll know that either that item is not important or that you really can’t afford to keep pushing it off. It should then go to the top of your list or be completely cut out.
  • You’ll get a sense of accomplishment even if all your experiments failed that day.
  • These lists are trackable. Meaning you can go back weekly and see where you are falling short on time and how you might change that.

Importantly, use a medium that works for you. If digital is easier for you to manage and setup then do it. Personally, I prefer sticky notes. I leave one on my desk every day so I know what I need to do. I date them and if items remain unchecked for 2 days I make them a top priority.

4: Do the housekeeping parts of your research

Depending on your research, this could have already been accomplished as the first thing you do when you wake up. For me this means that if I get into lab early (i.e. before anyone else is there) I have the freedom to get chores out of the way.


These are the things I recommend:

  1. Set up the notebook experiment for the reactions you are running. I use an electronic lab notebook (ELN, which will be discussed in a future post) so I setup the reaction, protocol, attached the lit reference if there is one. I do this for all the reactions I plan to run that day.
  2. Get the dry ice going in the rotovap and liquid nitrogen for the high vac cold trap. Simple things, but they take time to do and I feel ready for the day if they are done.
  3. Group job(s). These are those annoying things that take way too much time, but must be done to keep the lab running efficiently. Best to get them out of the way and thus eliminate distractions.
  4. Check my NCBI for resent literature. The importance of which I discussed here.
  5. Get your hood clean and restocked.

5: Exercise at some point

Roman Pohorecki

This is a hard one to make time for, but it is essential for maintaining a healthy body and mind. Do what works for you. Early morning run, in between reactions gym, or evening bike ride.

But make it a priority.

Without putting it on your to-do list you will find other “productive” things that need to be done. But remember, the PhD is a marathon not a sprint. You need to be at your bench as much as possible to get lucky enough to make a discovery. Being healthy enough to do that is a priority and your responsibility.

6: Power dress:

I don’t mean put on a tie and dress shoes. We’re chemist…how long do you think nice clothes last in the lab?

What I mean is don’t dress like a slob. Don’t dress like you just woke up or like you just got out of the gym (and don’t smell like it either).

What I mean is dress smartly. Wear clothing that is comfortable for standing at the bench and sitting at the desk. But make sure your clothes give off the air of confidence and control.

They should demand respect. It will subconsciously gear your mind towards success, a go get’em mentality, and your confidence will increase.

Don’t be afraid to dress slightly nicer than other people in your lab. I know when I wear a collared shirt I get people asking “what’s the occasion?”

The occasion is I got up early, had a kick-ass morning routine, and I’m readying to rock it in lab.

Now go out there and make the best of your morning.


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