How to Be A Good or Bad Interviewer

The job interview process has been written about extensively, and some people even receive specialized training from their jobs on how to properly conduct an interview. Everyone has ideas about the best way to provide interviews, and large companies tend to have specific motifs or methods of interviewing which can take on an undeservedly mythical reputation. There’s a lot of debate over whether the interview is an effective way of selecting talent, but the median is settled: if you are looking for a job, you will have to have an interview. If you are looking to fill a job, you will have to interview someone. This article is an analysis of common mistakes that I’ve seen interviewers make. I can’t help but propose a few better ways of conducting interviews alongside my analysis.

The best parts of job interviewing are getting to find out interesting things about companies while meeting the potentially cool people who populate those companies. The worst parts of job interviewing are finding out exactly how bad people can be at providing an interview. I am not an expert on interviewing people by any means, nor am I an expert at being interviewed– I’ve made quite a few awful mistakes in both camps, to be sure. I think that I have a few good ideas on what not to do as an interviewer, though. The anecdotes that I’ll provide here are not embellished. I will state that this experience is mostly from interviewing for scientific jobs, and that it may be that the personality of scientists precludes them from being good interviewers, but I don’t believe that this is the case.

Everyone is behooved to be good at acing job interviews because jobs are desirable, but few are so inclined to be perfectionistic about the opposite half. Companies want good talent, but of course they can always provide a job offer to someone they like and at least have a chance of getting them to agree, even if they have performed their interviewing of the candidate poorly and the candidate performed poorly.

Because of this inherent inequality of the process, the process of interviewing candidates is typically far weaker than it should be in a few different dimensions. To clarify this concept: attending the job interview and presenting a good face to potential employers is always a high priority of the job seeker, but preparing to interview a candidate and interviewing a candidate properly is very rarely a high priority for the people providing the interview. This mainstream habit of interviewing carelessness shows like a deep facial scar. The consequence of low-prioritization of interviewer preparation is sloppiness in execution and wasted time for all parties.

First, in all interviews that I have ever been on either side of, there will be at least one person who has not read the resume or given any premeditation about the candidate. Do not be this person, because this person has little to contribute to the investigation into whether the candidate is suitable. Pre-reading the candidate’s resume is a must if the aim of the interview is to determine whether the person is qualified technically and qualified socially.  The purpose of the job interview is not to spend time checking whether the candidate can recapitulate their resume without forgetting their own accomplishments but rather to assess if the candidate will improve a team’s capability to execute work. This fact seems self evident, yet I have been interviewed by several unrelated people who explicitly stated that they would see whether what I was saying was the same as what was reflected on my resume.

Aside from pre-reading the candidate’s resume, interviewers should also pre-think about the candidate. Practically no interviewers I have interacted with have attended to pre-thought about the candidate in any meaningful way. Writing a job description or giving the candidate’s resume a once-over does not count as pre-thinking. If you want to find the perfect person for a position, it is a disservice to your company not to prioritize premeditation about the candidate. Without premeditation, there can be no intelligent questioning of the interviewee. Is the person’s previous experience going to give them unique insights on the job they are hoping to fill? Is this candidate going to be socially successful at this position? Set time aside to write down these questions when there is nothing else competing for your attention.

Frank consideration of whether the person will fit in with the others on the team or not should be broached ruthlessly at this early step. Social conformity is a strong force which applies to people, and an inability to fit in can cause disruption among less flexible teams. To be clear, I think that heterogeneous teams have many advantages, but I also think that most interviewers are largely engaged in an exercise of finding the roughly qualified candidate that conforms most unindependently to the already-established majority. Biases about what kind of person the candidate is are going to the warp judgment of the interviewer no matter what, so it’s better to air them out explicitly such that they may be compensated for or investigated further when the candidate comes in. The objective here is not to find things to dislike about the candidate, but rather identify where the biases of the interviewer may interfere with collecting good data from the candidate when they arrive.

Remember that this critical step is rarely as simple as it seems. What kind of positive job-related things does the interviewer think about themselves? These positive self-thoughts will surely be used as a hidden rubric to asses the candidate, unfortunately. The interviewer identifying with the candidate is one of the strongest guarantors of a job offer.  The other takeaway here is that once the candidate comes in for the interview, be sure to explicitly note points of personal and professional identification between the interviewer and the candidate! Identifying with the candidate is great for the candidate’s prospects of getting the job, but it may not be the correct choice for the team to have to accommodate a new person who isn’t qualified.

Consider doubts about the candidate based on the information available, then write down questions to ask the candidate which will help to address those doubts– being tactful and canny at this step is an absolute must, so if there’s any doubt at being able to execute such questioning gracefully, defer to someone else who is more skilled. Is the candidate too young or old to fit in with the team, or are there concerns about the candidate’s maturity? Is the candidate visibly of any kind of grouping of people which isn’t the majority? Is the candidate going to rock the boat when stability is desired? It’s better to clarify why the candidate may not be socially qualified rather than to hem and haw without explicit criterion.

Winging it simply will not provide the best possible results here, because really the interviewer is interviewing their own thoughts on the candidate who is still unseen. Honesty regarding the team’s tolerance for difference is critical. To be clear, I do not think that the heavily conformity-based social vetting of candidates is good or desirable whatsoever. In fact, I think the subconscious drive toward a similar person rather than a different one is a detrimental habit of humans that results in fragile and boring social monocultures. I am merely trying to describe the process by which candidates are evaluated in reality whether or not the interviewers realize it or not. The social qualification of the candidate is probably the largest single factor in deciding whether the candidate gets the job or not, so it’s important to pay attention rather than let it fall unspoken. Interviewing a candidate is a full but small project that lives within the larger project of finding the right person for the open position.

We’ve reached our conclusion about things to do during to the period before the candidate arrives. But what about once the candidate is sitting in the interview room? In situations where there are multiple interviewers, successive interviewers nearly always duplicate the efforts of previous interviewers. They ask the same questions, get the same answers, and perhaps have a couple of different follow ups– but largely they are wasting everyone’s time by treading and re-treading the same ground.

Have a chat with the team before interviewing the candidate and discuss who is going to ask what questions. The questions should be specific to the candidate and resulting from the individual premeditation that the members of the interviewing team performed before the meeting and before interviewing the candidate. The same concerns may crop up in different candidates, which is fine. Examine popular trends of concern, and figure out how to inquire about them. Assign the most difficult or probing questions to the most socially skilled teammate. If there’s no clear winner in terms of social skill, reconsider whether it’s going to be feasible to ask the candidate gracefully.

Plan to be on time, because the candidate did their best to be on time. In my experience, interviewers are habitually late, sometimes by as much as thirty minutes. This problem results from not prioritizing interviewing as a task, wastes everyone’s time, and is entirely avoidable. Additionally, make sure that your interviewing time is uninterrupted. An interviewer that is distracted by answering phone calls or emails is not an interviewer who is reaping as much information as possible from the candidate. If there is something more pressing than interviewing the candidate during the time which was set aside by everyone to interview them, reschedule. Interviewing is an effort and attention intensive task, and can’t simply be “fit in” or “made to work” if there are other things going on at the same time.  

The interviewers should have the candidate’s resume in hand, along with a list of questions. When possible the questions should be woven into a conversational framework rather than in an interrogation-style format. Conversational questioning keeps the candidate out of interview mode slightly more, though it’s not going to be possible or desirable to jolt the candidate into a more informal mode because of the stress involved in being interviewed. Remember that the goal is to ask the candidate the questions that will help you to determine whether they are socially and technically qualified for the job. The facade of the candidate doesn’t matter, provided that you can assess the aforementioned qualifications.

Don’t waste everyone’s time with procedural, legal, or “necessary” but informationally unfruitful questions! Leave the routine stuff to HR and instead prioritize getting the answers to questions that are specific to evaluating this candidate in particular. HR isn’t going to have to live with having this person on their team, but they will likely be concerned about logistical stuff, so let them do their job and you can do yours more efficiently. If there’s no HR to speak of, a phone screen before the interview is the time for any banalities. To reiterate: focus on the substantial questions during the interview, and ensure that procedural stuff or paperwork doesn’t eat up valuable time when the candidate is actually in front of you.

If there are doubts about a candidate’s technical abilities or experience, have a quick way of testing in hand and be sure to notify the candidate that they will be tested beforehand. Once again, do not wing it. Remember that the candidate’s resume got them to the interview, so there’s no point in re-hashing the contents of the resume unless there’s a specific question that prompts the candidate to do something other than summarize what they’ve already written down for you. I highly suggest that questions directed toward the candidate are designed to shed light on the things which are not detailed in the resume or cover letter. The thought process and demeanor of the candidate are the two most important of these items.

Assessing the experience or thought process of the candidate can frequently be done by posing a simple “if X, then what is your choice for Y?” style question.  In this vein, consider that personal questions aren’t relevant except to assess the social qualifications of the candidate. Therefore, questions regarding the way that the candidate deals with coworkers are fair game. I highly suggest making questions toward the candidate as realistic as possible rather than abstract; abstract questions tend to have abstract answers that may not provide actionable information whereas real creativity involves manipulation of the particulars of the situation.

Aside from asking fruitful questions, the interviewer should take care with the statements which they direct toward the candidate. I will take this opportunity to explain a common and especially frustrating mistake that I have experienced interviewers making. As is self evident, the interview is not the time to question whether the candidate is suitable to bring in for an interview. To discuss this matter with the candidate during the interview is a misstep and is time that could be better spent trying to understand the candidate’s place in the team more.

To this end, it is counterproductive and unprofessional to tell the candidate that they are not technically or socially qualified for the position they are interviewing during the interview! The same goes for interviewer statements which explicitly or implicitly dismiss the value of the candidate. Interviews are rife with this sort of unstrategic and unfocused foul-play. This has happened to me a number of times, and I have witnessed it as a co-interviewer several times as well.

A red flag for a terrible interviewer is that they tell the candidate or try to make the candidate admit lack of qualifications or experience. Mid-level managers seem to be the most susceptible to making this mistake, and mid-career employees the least. It is entirely possible to find the limit of a candidate’s knowledge in a way that does not involve explicitly putting them down.  Voice these concerns to other interviewers before the candidate is invited in. If your company considers minimization of the candidate’s accomplishments as a standard posturing tactic designed to produce lower salary requests, consider leaving.

Aside from being demeaning, the tactic of putting down the candidate during the interview is frequently used by insecure interviewers who aren’t fit to be performing the task of evaluating candidates. There is no greater purpose served by intentionally posturing to the candidate they they are not valuable and are unwanted! Time spent lording over how ill-fit the candidate is for the position is wasted time that could be better spent elsewhere.

Don’t play mind games with the candidate– it’s immature, misguided, and ineffective. Such efforts are nearly always transparent and constitute an incompetent approach to interviewing based off of the false premise that candidates misrepresent their ability to do work to the interviewers, and so the interviewer must throw the candidate off their guard in order to ascertain the truth about the candidate.This line of thinking dictates that the “true” personality or disposition of the candidate is the target of information gathering during the interview. The habits and realized output of a person while they are in the mode of working are the real target of inquiry in an interview, so don’t get distracted by other phenomena which require digging but don’t offer a concrete return.

Typically, the purpose of these mind games is to get beyond the candidate’s presentable facade in an attempt to evaluate their “true” disposition or personality. This goal is misguided because the goal of an employee is not to have a “true” disposition that is in accordance with what their employer wants, but rather to have an artificial disposition that is in accordance with what their employer wants. We call this artificial disposition “professionalism“, but really it is another term for workplace conformity. I will note that professionalism is a trait that is frequently (but not always) desirable because it implies smooth functioning of an employee within the workplace. The mask of professionalism is a useful one, and all workers understand more or less the idea of how to wear it. A worker’s “true” or hidden personality is unrelated to their ability to cooperate with a team and perform work, if the deeper personality even exists in the individual at all. Conformity keeps the unshown personality obedient and unseen in the workplace, so it isn’t worth trying to investigate it anyway.

After the candidate has left, it’s time for a debrief with the team. Did the candidate seem like they’d be able to fit in with the team socially? If not, could the team grow together with the candidate? Did the candidate pass the relevant technical questions? Is the candidate going to outshine anyone in the team and cause jealousy? Did anyone have any fresh concerns about the candidate, or were any old concerns left unresolved despite efforts to do so? It’s important to get everyone’s perspectives on these questions. Report back on the answers to the questions that were agreed upon beforehand. If everyone did their part, there shouldn’t be much duplicated effort, but there should be a lot of new information to process.

Not all perspectives are equal, and not all interviewers are socially adept enough to pick up subtle cues from the candidate. Conversely, some interviewers will ignore even strong social cues indicated a good fit if their biases interfere. Interviewers have to remember that their compatriots likely had different experiences with the candidate– if they didn’t, effort was wasted and work was duplicated.

Is the candidate worth calling in for another interview, or perhaps worth a job offer right away? What kind of social posturing did the candidate seem to be doing during each interaction? What was their body language like when they were answering the most critical inquiries? Pay particular attention to the differences in the way that the candidate acted around different interviewers. This will inform the interviewers potentially where some of the candidate’s habits lie, and allow analysis of whether those habits will conform with the group’s.

If the interviewing process is really a priority, the interviewers will write down the answers to the above questions and compare them. How you process the results of this comparison is up to you, but if you don’t do the process, you’re not getting the most information out of interviewing that you could. If you take one concept away from this piece, it should be that teams have to make their interviewing efforts a priority in order to avoid duplicating questions, wasting time with posturing, and properly assess social and technical qualifications of the candidate.

If you liked this piece, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and check out my Patreon page! I’ve been sick the past week (as well as involved in an exciting new opportunity) so I haven’t been writing as much, but I should be over my cold by Monday and back to regular output.

 

How to Decide What to Prioritize At Work

Deciding what to prioritize during work is a critical skill that every employee in any job must understand in order to excel. In my previous post,  regarding praise and criticism at work, I discussed how the coherence of priorities among members of a team results in opportunities for criticism or praise. Given that an individual’s prioritization of work tasks has direct results which other coworkers and managers evaluate, picking the correct order of priorities has high social stakes as well as obvious economic stakes.

Let’s define the term priority in the context of work. A priority is a task or collection of closely related sequential tasks which consume a worker’s time and energy resources to complete. Most workers have numerous priorities which must be completed. Priorities frequently exist in a list of importance, whether this list is explicitly stated or not– we’ll talk more about the “importance” of priorities later on. Certain priorities have dependencies on other priorities that must be completed before they can be performed; dependent priorities are often completed by a coworker.

The completion of priorities consumes the majority of an industrious worker’s time and energy spent at work, and businesses hire new employees in order to complete more priorities. The role of the manager is to assign priorities to the members of the team, and ensure that the members of the team are able to complete their priorities. Frequently, meetings are held in order to discuss which priorities are “more important” than others. Let’s unpack the concept of more important priorities versus less important priorities.

A priority is considered to be “high priority” or “more important” than other priorities if the completion of that priority is time sensitive or is a dependency of another person or group’s priority. We will define a time sensitive priority as a priority that is initiated close to its deadline. Most priorities do not fit this bill, and so there may not be a clear reason to complete one before the other.With that being said, missing or confusing the reason for arranging priorities in a certain order is a perpetual stumbling block for most employees.

Typically, employees and managers alike have only a case-by-case way of reasoning about which priorities should be completed first. I’ll try to clear this up by offering a concrete thought system for ordering priorities.

Figuring out a process to correctly determine the list of priorities requires thinking from a holistic perspective. The efficiency goal of a team is to maximize the team’s completion of high priorities; when the highest priority is completed, the next highest priority takes its place. Teams are made of individuals, and the priorities of the team are divided among the individuals in the team. For the maximum priority completion capacity of an individual team member to be met, at minimum, their priority dependencies must be completed.

If a worker’s priority dependencies are not met, they may become unable to complete a priority and instead opt to complete a different priority. If a worker can’t start on any of their priorities as a result of the dependencies not being completed, the worker is said to be blocked. If a worker is blocked, the team is wasting that worker’s time and energy resources, so organizing priorities in a way which avoids blocking is critical to a smoothly functioning team.

While dependent priorities may seem to always take the highest place on the list, there is an inherent tension between dependent priorities, time sensitive priorities, and general time management. Is it higher priority to finish writing a report by its deadline, or to proofread a coworker’s finished report so that they may start writing a new one? The answer is that it depends on how much time and other priorities you have, and also how much time and other priorities your coworker has.

A worker’s general purpose is to transmute their time and energy resources into completed priorities. Time at work is hopefully finite, and is marked by the explicit or implicit passing of deadlines. Most priorities have deadlines after which their completion will be considered discordant with expectations, likely resulting in criticism. Priority deadlines exist together simultaneously, and approach the present with equal speed regardless of the amount of resources invested. Having strong knowledge of time management and the time it takes a given worker to complete a given priority is critical.

A smart team will have a calendar with the deadlines for all of the team’s priorities as well as the individual team member priority deadlines. Having this information and mapping it out is the first step in a system for determining the most important priority.

  1. Organize all priorities onto a calendar with the deadline marked clearly. A non-calendar schedule is also fine. This organization scheme should be zoomed in to the minute, or zoomed out to the year as necessary. The more detailed and particle-sized the calendar is, the more effective it will be. A digital calendar or schedule shared by the entire team is the way to do this correctly, as a paper calendar would probably get full too quickly.
  2. Mark into the calendar or schedule who is going to devote their time to each priority. Be realistic about what each team member can do, but also recognize inertia: people in motion tend to stay in motion. An overloaded teammate making good headway is often a smarter choice for an even heavier load relative to a moderately loaded but frequently dependency stalled teammate. Time insensitive and non-dependent priorities can be left unassigned to remain as extra for whoever finishes their priorities first, but I don’t recommend it unless the team is exceptionally motivated to churn through work, which most are not. Unassigned priorities tend to fall through the cracks, so don’t set yourself up for failure by assuming someone will pick up the burden.
  3. Identify the amount of time it takes to perform each priority assuming that the priority’s dependencies are met. If you don’t have this data, I highly suggest gathering it. If you want to get fancy, you can also identify how much worker energy each priority expends per unit of time. Understanding which priorities are effort intensive can often lead to insights.
  4. Identify which priorities are dependent on the completion of other priorities. Write down exactly which other priorities need to be finished first in order to start work. Identify who is responsible for completing the dependencies, and identify if they are going to be dependent on further priorities being completed before they can unblock each other. Identify the points at which blocking is likely to happen.
  5. Identify which priorities are time sensitive. Time sensitive priorities are always close to their deadline; the affix of time sensitivity can be surreptitiously imposed by management, meaning that time sensitive priorities are not always known in advance. A priority could be time sensitive if it is a priority which is another worker’s dependency, and that worker will be stalled and unable to do any work if the priority is not finished by its deadline.
  6. Arrange priorities to eliminate blockages as much as possible. Ensure that all dependencies are completed to avoid stalling. Perfection may not be possible here. Pragmatic judgments about the harm of missing deadlines in order to maintain steady flow of priority completion will be required. Time sensitive priorities passed down from high may cause hiccups in steady flow, causing blockages– it’s best to leave some slack time between a priority’s minimum completion time and its deadline whenever possible.
  7. Assess blockages as they occur and determine whether a different ordering of priorities would prevent them. A no brainer: adjust based off of how the plan works in action. Sometimes multiple blockages can be alleviated with a single change.

I highly suggest that managers take this explicit methodology for priority ordering to heart. Conducting endless meetings to assign priorities and gather status updates on completion is one very popular (and very time-wasteful) method of ensuring the team’s priorities are ordered in the same way. Having a shared team system for picking the order of priorities reduces blockages, reduces workplace stress, and improves a team’s output.

When everyone is on the same page when it comes to priority completion, we call it good teamwork. A frequent sensation of good teamwork is the gratefulness of being handed a snack immediately before actually being hungry.

I hope you liked this article! I struggled a bit to clarify my thoughts during the final two items of the list, and I may revisit them shortly to edit. If you liked this piece, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and if you’re feeling generous, check out my Patreon page to support me writing more articles like these!

How to Improve Work-Stuff, Scientifically!

One of my favorite tasks to do when I’m at work is to find ways of optimizing workflows, actions, or processes that I’m regularly doing. If you do something multiple times per day or week, it’s worth doing it as well as possible, right? In my experience, most tasks or workflows are created thoughtfully, but then executed relatively automatically, and, over time, thoughtlessly. Sure, if you have a workflow that’s deeply detail oriented or requires a lot of conscious, brain-on-task time, you’re likely to be mentally active while you execute it, but actually thinking about the efficiency of the process itself may not  be on your mind.

Sometimes I set aside time for process improvements, but usually I fit it into a block of time that I don’t have slated for anything else. Depending on what kind of work you do and what kind of improvements you’re seeking to make, making a change to your process may require a lot of paperwork. If making changes to your workflow or process will require a lot of paperwork, it’s still worth at least investigating whether you can make a change, but the bar for what criterion you use to select your change will probably differ, as it makes more sense to fix a ton of small changes or radically re-haul the process entirely.

When optimizing work, take care to not disrupt old dogmas willy nilly. I propose investigating your workflows scientifically, and determining which optimizations to make scientifically as well. This means that the technique for optimizing workflows I’ll be discussing in this article will be suitable for some kinds of work, but not others. Additionally, my scientific way of investigating beneficial changes may not operate properly for every type of work.

How do you select a process for scientific optimization? The following points are a good guide to seeing whether or not your process can be improved scientifically:

  1. Measurable outcomes and rigorous metrics. In order to think about optimizations scientifically, we need to be able to quantify the pieces we’re talking about. A manufacturing process that produces 15 yellow cubes in 1 hour is an easy candidate for scientific optimization because changes to the process will alter the number, color, or time it takes to produce the cubes. A painting technique that is used to produce impressionistic portraits is not a good choice for optimization, though with some time invested into making qualitative rubrics it may be possible.
  2. Empowerment to experiment. Everyone has bosses, and not everyone’s boss is going to be keen on experimentation with company assets. Having supportive co-workers and bosses is essential to experimenting with process improvements. Bosses may be scared away from the scientific optimization process because it’s resource intensive. Others may be scared due to their own insecurity with scientific pursuits, which tend to be perceived as complicated. Aside from clearance to experiment generally, some processes at work may be open for reinterpretation, whereas others will be sacred and untouchable.
  3. Non-catastrophic failure. Experimenting with the workflow that props up an entire business is sometimes necessary, but should be avoided if it can’t be done safely. The last thing an employee should do is destroy an already-functioning process by attempting to improve it. For some workflows, safe experimentation isn’t possible without the potential for massive fallout if things go wrong. In these cases, making a smaller model to play with typically isn’t possible. I suggest you avoid playing around with systems that will have bad consequences if they fail or have null results.
  4. Controls and Variables. If you’re really going to be conducting a scientific evaluation of your workflows, you need to have the ability to create controls and variables for your investigation. This means that it must be possible to keep the majority of your process the same while changing small pieces individually. Additionally, you need to have data for the way that the process behaves under normal, non-experimental conditions. Most workflows have a paperwork component of some kind, so this is a great place to start looking for control data that you can compare your experimental data with after you’ve run your experiment.

Now you know how to evaluate a process for scientific optimization, so let’s dive right into the meat of how to actually run an experiment once you’ve picked a process to change.

  1. First, if you haven’t already, decide what your variables will be. Remember, you should only be investigating one state of one variable for each trial in the experiment. The variables you pick are up to you, but keep in mind that the items you pick as variables are the items which will end up being improved by beneficial changes to the process that you discover after the experiment is over.
  2. Next, decide your controls. The controls are the most important part of getting usable data from the experiment. I suggest having a negative control (the process as executed before the improvements proposed by the experiment). If you want to get fancy and your process permits it, I’d also add in a null control (a control designed to terminate the process from moving forward) and a positive control (a control designed to test your ability to detect positive results and gather data), but these aren’t strictly necessary.
  3. Once you have decided your controls and variables, it’s time to write up an experimental protocol. How will you be isolating your controls from your experimental group? How will you be altering your variables and setting up your controls? How will you be changing your variables? What will your output look like? How will you be measuring the results of the experiment? How will data be presented in raw form? This is the hardest step and also the most risky step, scientifically. Ensure that your protocol is as close to the normal, pre-experiment way of doing things as possible in order to minimize variability. An experiment is only as strong as its protocol!
  4. Run your protocol and gather data. Each run of the protocol counts as a trial in your experiment. Take care to follow your protocol to the letter, and record data about how the output of the process changes based off of the state of the variables. Don’t worry about analyzing data yet, just try to stick to the protocol and pay attention to your controls and variables. It’s best to minimize variability by running protocols at the same time of day.
  5. Repeat step 4 as many times as needed. Gather data until you feel as though you have enough trials to make a decision. If you want to be super scientific, do some statistics and determine the sample size you need in order to make a good decision, but for most workplace experiments, this level of application isn’t necessary.
  6. Analyze the data gathered in steps 4-5. Which changes to which variables created the most beneficial changes to your originally stated metrics? Were there any consequences to optimization?
  7. Implement changes to your workflow. This should be quite easy, with data in hand. Be sure to argue for your changes using the data that you gathered scientifically, if necessary. If there’s no boss to convince, then enjoy the fruits of your labor immediately.
  8. Show off your good results! Be sure to keep a record of the way that your workflow was run beforehand, just in case. It also helps to maintain records of how your metrics were performing before your scientific optimizations, so that you can show off the positive differences you effected later on. If your results were negative, don’t sweat– most experiments have negative results. More experimentation might be useful, but know when it’s time to throw in the towel. There isn’t necessarily room to improve every single process, especially if it’s already been through the ringer a few times over the years.

Hopefully this guide was helpful to you; I know that I’ve more or less run this regimen on every workflow and process that I’ve touched throughout my professional life. The core concept is systematically tracking changes to variables. As long as you can keep track of what you’re changing, you can make a causative connection between your changes and the outcome.

If you liked this piece, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and be sure to subscribe to the email list on the right!

Time Management Tips from the HIV Lab

Growing up, I hadn’t ever imagined that I’d be at high risk of HIV infection for years on end as a result of my chosen profession. I thought that HIV was mostly a problem of Africans, or homosexuals in the US– a problem that was steadfastly irrelevant and completely opaque to my white, straight, middle class American self.

When I was desperately scouring for jobs to apply to after graduating from college, my only thought about working in an HIV lab is that it might be a cool opportunity to help people with HIV. I liked the idea of “doing science”, and I liked the idea of “helping people”. I grew to understand that in the course of my work, HIV would be my problem too: the high level goal of my job was to create a vaccine for HIV, and the only way to get there was by slogging through experiments involving HIV+ blood, stool, cell, and tissue samples every day, for years.

When I was interviewing for the job, they told me informally that the rate of infection at this laboratory was %0.3 per year, meaning that if I worked there for three years, I’d have about a %1 chance of contracting HIV due to my own mistakes. I don’t know if that statistic is true or not (I suspect not), but I ended up working there for three years, and definitely had a few close calls due to carelessness– a problem addressed later in this piece. At the time of my application, I wasn’t even a little bit scared. It wouldn’t be until much later that the full meaning of what I was going through would be clear to me, and the caution would take over– far later than it should have, of course.

Formally, my title at the start was “research technician” (how demeaning this term grew to be!) at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, an academic research laboratory group devoted to the formulation of a vaccine or cure for HIV, an immune system disease that has proven to be increasingly problematic in the developing world.

At this early point, I hadn’t yet understood that HIV was a problem outside of poor and minority communities. Luckily, I joined the Ragon book club, and read a biography called A Song in the Night written by one of our research subjects regarding his fight against HIV. Reading his account of HIV divested me of my delusions, and made me think more about the white, straight, middle class HIV epidemic that was largely hushed up during the early stages of the disease’s spread.

My job at the Ragon Institute (or Ragon for short) was my first “real” job after college, and I experienced a huge amount of personal and professional growth during my time there. In the course of my time at the Ragon, I went from being a lowly “pair of hands” quasi-biorobot to being one of the most experienced technologists in the Institute,  responsible for leading, training, and advising my peers.

The biological sciences are extremely demanding in terms of attention to detail, and immunology is no exception. Each experiment must be designed properly, and executed with caution and precision. In order for experiments to have statistical relevance, they must be repeated many times with slightly different variables, leading to a high volume of work.

The work must be performed in standardized ways, making use of components which have been tested and standardized themselves. These factors quickly create workflows that are extremely time consuming, dangerous, and psychologically demanding, generating stress. A tiny mistake could ruin a week long experiment, wasting time and money. A larger mistake could give you HIV.

This piece will chronicle the distilled professional wisdom from my time at the Ragon Institute, with a special emphasis on time management.

Many of my nuggets of wisdom have been culled from times when I made mistakes, or witnessed others making mistakes, frequently as a result of rushing through an experiment in a stressed out fashion due to fear of reproach and political fallout.I also frequently consulted Extreme Productivity, which is a decent resource for jump-starting your own thinking about improving your work experience.

After a year of working at the Ragon, I realized that I needed a solution to the problem of making easily avoidable mistakes in order to save my sanity. The mistake that prompted this thought occurred when during an experiment, I performed an action that was akin to adding dish soap directly into a fresh cup of coffee that you’re planning to drink. It was a mixup of order, and relatively simple to avoid. I figured that the solution to avoid making the harder to avoid mistakes would become evident if I managed to find a technique for the small ones. I wasn’t wrong– any problem that’s large is a problem that’s waiting to be split up into particle-sized steps which are easy to solve.

First off, I figured I’d decrease the speed at which I worked. This seemed like a pretty basic common sense way of reducing mistakes. Later, I’d reform this idea to fit it into my concepts of stress reduction and time management, but at this early phase, I didn’t quite execute it properly. I pledged to slow down, especially when doing “simple” tasks. I didn’t think about breaking down large tasks into smaller ones, or planning more effectively, or making accommodations for my reduced rate of perfectionist work.

As a result, when I slowed down, I’d quickly have a backlog of work, and trouble making my appointments and reservations to use certain instruments or people’s time. Sure, the work that I produced didn’t have quite as many mistakes– until I began to get stressed about the growing pile of work yet to be done as a result of my slowness. Then, the growing stress would take its toll, causing mistakes on the more complicated manipulations of my experiments.

The missed and late appointments and reservations were also a stressor, causing tension with the other people in line to use the various research apparatuses. Just slowing down without taking anything else into consideration definitely wouldn’t work. With some trial and error, I made a system for improving my work quality.

My system has three main parts, and one main variable. The three parts are time management, stress management, and professional relationships. I’ll be focusing on time management in this post. The variable is perfectionism. I’ll describe the other parts of the system separately in a different piece. Your time management strategy must be consciously calibrated for the job at hand in light of perfectionism. The level of perfectionism that you choose to apply is going to have transformative impacts on the details of your time management, your levels of stress, and your professional interactions.

I’ll explain in more detail how perfectionism fits into each piece as we go, but the main theme is that perfectionism is a sliding scale which has both good and bad consequences. In the HIV lab, I occupied every shade of the perfectionism gradient at one time or another, often unwittingly. As a novice, I had no control over my own level of perfectionism or lack thereof, meaning that simple but inconsequential tasks (slapping labels onto vials) were performed slowly and perfectly, whereas deeply difficult and complex tasks (calibrating the cytometer’s laser voltages to prevent spectral overlap of excited-state flourochromes) were breezed through without care. When I reached mastery, I understood how to regulate my own level of perfectionism to best complete the tasks at hand. I hope to share this ability with you.

The first step in revamping my time management ability was to estimate and then measure the amount of time that it took me to perform various common tasks. I measured how long it took me to prepare my samples for the analyzer machine, and then how long it took me to analyze them, including the physical walking time to transition between the two places I’d need to go. I measured how long it took me to manipulate my samples if I did preparatory work during my otherwise unproductive incubation times. I measured how long it took me to add entries to our sample database. I measured how long it took me to jot neatly into my lab notebook, and, for fun, measured how long it took me to merely scribble unintelligibly into my lab notebook. Attention to detail takes time.

I wrote it all down, and had a nice collection of most of the things that I did and about how long they took me, along with a few variations of those common things and the extra time the variants would take. This is a critical step to time management, and I highly encourage you to do the same: think of things you do frequently, time yourself (even if you think you know how long it takes, get an objective measurement!) and write it down. Once you have several pieces of data for each task you commonly do, you are closer to being ready to making a realistic work schedule for a given day.

Before we get to actually making the schedule, there’s one other thing that I learned which is critical: breaking down tasks into particles and tracking completion of each particle like a tyrant. It’s an old piece of advice, but it actually works. Don’t write a plan and have an item that says “do the laundry” with an estimate of two hours. This is asking for stress, because in order to do the task “laundry” you have formed the idea in your mind that it will take 120 minutes of continuous work, which is not true. Doing the laundry isn’t all one step, either. It’s a common work flow with a few different steps that fits into your larger plans for the day, and comes with transition times between steps which can’t be neglected.

In order to put the concept of “doing the laundry” into your schedule, it should really look more like:

Laundry (estimated time 2H total):

  1. Gather the dirty clothes (2 minutes)
  2. Separate the white clothes from the colored clothes (3 minutes)
  3. Put the dirty clothes in the hamper (1 minute)
  4. Grab the detergent (30 seconds)
  5. Bring the detergent and the hamper downstairs (1 minute)
  6. Put the detergent into the washer (30 seconds)
  7. Put the clothes into the washer (1 minute)
  8. Start the washer (15 seconds)
  9. Wash cycle (35 minutes, could do something else in the meantime)
  10. Remove the clothes from the washer (2 minutes)
  11. Transfer clothes to dryer (2 minutes)
  12. Start dry cycle (15 seconds)
  13. Dry cycle (50 minutes, could do something else in the meantime)
  14. Remove clothes from dryer (2 minutes)
  15. Fold clothes (10 minutes)
  16. Bring the folded clothes and detergent back upstairs (1 minute)
  17. Put away the detergent and the folded clothes (10 minutes)

None of these steps are intimidating whatsoever, and you can adjust the times to be more accurate as you go. You may also notice that there are a few opportunities here to reduce the amount of “hands on” time. If you were to gather the dirty clothes, separate them, and put them downstairs the day before you had to do the laundry, for instance, that’d reduce the amount of time you’d have to be working on the day of. In this case, the prep work wouldn’t make a huge difference in reducing the total amount of time spent on the task, but it certainly would give you more flexibility to fit doing the laundry into a given slot of time, because it would take less time on that day.

Doing the prep work before it was actually needed was a lesson which also greatly improved my ability to multitask. Once you have made lists with particles of things to do for a given task, you can very easily fit your overall schedule together such that while you are doing hands on things for one task, a different task is in its incubation time. This also works for situations in which you hand off your work to someone else, who will later return it back to you. It’s nice to rest sometimes, but this is time that can be used to be productive. If you hand off your work, you can usually make headway on something else in the meantime. If you’ve done your prep work or do your prep work during these times, you’ll find that you can knock down a lot of tasks by just fitting task particles into any open space.

Realizing that turning my tasks into particles allowed me to accomplish more by cutting down my dead time was a huge improvement for my work at the lab. Of course, multi-tasking has consequences: a task with maximum perfectionism applied will be performed alone, so as to allow a full devotion of attention.

Doing something while something else is out of your hands is a basic productivity strategy, and it also implies another good trick for scheduling your particle-sized tasks: leave yourself a margin of error. If you can plan your day to the minute accurately and have no spare time whatsoever, you’re overbooked. In the lab, I always left myself extra loose time in my schedules in order to account for things which might pop up: a coworker asking for help, running out of a reagent and needing to borrow it, a fire drill, coffee with a friend passing by, etc. You need this loose time as an insurance policy against fate, and also for your own sanity. Having extra time to play with often means that you have more time to take more care and more perfection in the tasks that you are doing. Not having extra time means that in the event of anything unexpected, you will be behind schedule, and your tasks can’t be attended to as much as they really should be.

The last major consideration is the amount of perfectionism you are going to invest in each task in your day. I suggest an easy rating scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being tasks that require an extreme amount of care and perfectionism and 1 being tasks which can be breezed through without much fear of a mistake causing a major derailing. Each particle in your list of tasks on your schedule can be rated this way. This way, you can allow yourself to relax a little bit in between focus intensive tasks while also understanding when you are going to need to really put in scrutiny.

Judgments of what amount of perfectionism should be formed based on the ease of the task, the ease of correcting mistakes, and your familiarity with the task. If it’s quick, easy, hard to mess up, and simple to fix, the task is a 1. If it’s extremely involved with irreversible consequences in the event of a mishap, it’s a 5. This system can help to relieve stress or at least channel stress at the correct moments as well. A quick self-reminder that “this task is a 1” or “this task is a 5” helps keep things in context. In lab research, far more things are closer to 5 than to 1.

In summary, time management is absolutely critical, and easily separates effective and productive employees from those who are drowned, stressed, and overwhelmed. It is a common story that giving an extra task to the busiest person results in it getting done the fastest. I think that this story is a result of the superior time management and productivity dispositions that the highest producing people have to have.

To a certain extent, a person that is an effective time manager is a lot like a wood furnace for tasks. There is a finite capacity for how much a wood furnace can burn at any given time, but its response to having wood put into the fire is to burn hotter and more efficiently.

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