9 Habits of highly productive researchers

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9 Habits of highly productive researchers

Research can be tough: more often than not, you are multitasking, chasing deadlines, handling operational tasks, and more. How can you take on these challenges headlong and be on top of your game? In this piece, we will take a look at some habits that will help ease your researcher life and help you become a highly productive and effective researcher.

These are:

Setting goals

Setting well-defined and realistic goals can go a long way in ensuring success. Setting a goal provides a direction to day-to-day as well as long-term efforts. Having a goal also keeps you motivated because you know what you are aiming toward.

Here are a few pointers for setting and achieving goals.

  • Set SMART goals. The goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Use these parameters to evaluate if you are setting apt goals.
  • Have sub-goals. It helps to break up your goal into smaller goals. Doing this makes the bigger goal manageable and also promotes a feeling of continual achievement as you work your way through each ‘mini’ goal.
  • Track your progress. Periodically review your performance and your goals. This will help you determine what changes you need to make to your performance, your goal, or both.
  • Have an accountability partnerAn accountability partner is someone with whom you share your goals and updates on them to help you be on track. Ideally, this should be a peer or someone who shares your goals, so that you can keep each other motivated.

Being organized

‘Where did the day go?’ If you find yourself often asking this, you are probably letting the day run you, and not the other way around. Yes, there’s a lot to do on a daily basis as a researcher: making progress with your research, catching up with your writing, staying abreast of latest developments in the field, corresponding with various collaborators, and so on. But what helps many researchers get tasks done is organizing their work life. Being organized helps you multitask with ease, prioritize better, and ensure that you do not miss out any tasks.

Here are different aspects of your work life that you can organize to be more productive.

  • Your day: Assign a separate period of the day for each activity. For instance, you could do your writing in the early morning or at night, whenever you find it conducive. Similarly, you could keep administrative tasks for a sluggish period such as after lunch.
  • Your data: Keep a record of your data using data management tools. You can save useful articles through reference management software and your citations using annotated bibliography. Organizing different assets of your research will keep them right where you know them.
  • Your communication: Create folders in your inbox and assign rules for different types of emails so that they are easier and faster to read and respond.

Managing time

Managing your time efficiently is important for the health of your research project, but it’s also important for your overall wellbeing. Not managing time well can lead to feelings of inadequacy, making you feel overwhelmed and stressed. In the long run, it can also lead to burnout. Time management is also important to ensure you have a life outside the lab.

The first step to managing time is to track it. “To manage time well, know where it goes,” offers Meghan Duffy, an ecologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. When Duffy started tracking her time as a postdoc, she found that she was spending disproportionate amounts going through the news. Once you know where you are spending your time, you can determine which activities to continue and which to remove or curtail.

For the tasks you need to do, you can adopt the following strategies.

  • Set priorities. Prioritization helps you focus your time and effort. To determine priorities, you could use a tool such as the prioritization matrix, which helps you decide the tasks to focus on based on two criteria, urgency and criticality.
  • Batch-process certain tasks. Instead of reading and replying to emails as they come, keep a certain time of the day for doing so.
  • Outsource or delegate certain tasks if you can. This will help you keep time and energy for the activities you enjoy.

For other ways to manage your time, check out this piece: 10 Tried and tested time management tips for researchers

Staying informed

Science grows at a relentless pace. Keeping aware of the goings-on in the industry and the developments in your field of research helps you remain on top of your game. Staying informed can also open up new opportunities – be it finding a great collaborator, coming across a piece of information that can help you in your research, knowing about a new grant opportunity, or participating in a conference. Keeping yourself current is imperative because an informed researcher is an empowered researcher.

But how do you manage to make time for reading in your busy schedule? Apart from the time management tips suggested above, here are a couple of other suggestions.

  • Devote a little time daily. Spend just a tiny amount of time, even 10 minutes (such as during a coffee break), each day to catch up on relevant news and information. A little bit each day adds up to a lot over time.
  • Learn to speed read. Speed reading helps you quickly get the gist of a piece without having to deep dive into it. Doing this also helps you quickly identify information that is relevant, an especially useful strategy in today’s times of ‘information overload.’

Being proactive

Being proactive is about thinking ahead to stay ahead.

It involves thinking through all the requirements for your research to ensure they are met in a timely manner. It also involves anticipating any challenges your research project might face in the course of time – such as delays in getting the requisite approvals – and preparing to meet these challenges. At times, it can also involve having a backup plan (a plan B), so that you can enact a new course of action if the previous one fails.

Publication is another area where being proactive helps. Identifying a target journal before you start writing the manuscript helps you save time and tailor your writing to the journal’s style. Knowing about the journal’s review process and withdrawal policy in advance helps you chalk out a plan in case of unprecedented delays. Why, you could even have a list of potential peer reviewers ready if the journal is not able to find them on their own!

Finally, being proactive can be especially beneficial to your career. For instance, if you identify a technology or an approach that has the potential to become a standard in the time to come, you can go about acquiring the requisite knowledge and skills starting now.

Building a network

While research happens in the lab, many aspects of research take place outside the lab. For researchers at any level, building a network and ecosystem outside the lab becomes crucial for several reasons.

  • Opens you up to new possibilities: Meeting other researchers and learning of the work they are doing opens up your mind; it could even give you insights and ideas for your own research.
  • Helps increase the visibility of your research: Sharing your research with others helps your work reach and potentially benefit more people, which is one of the cornerstones of science.
  • Leads to future opportunities: The networks you create now could lead to an opportunity sometime in the future. As Dr Wade Kelly, Senior Coordinator, Research Impact, La Trobe University, Melbourne shares, “The reason I was able to get the [my] job was because I had worked hard to build a network of people who were willing to help me out… and who shared information about jobs and opportunities.”
  • Fosters kinship: Sharing experiences – good and bad – kindles a sense of empathy. It also helps you learn from each other.

While building a network takes time and effort, technology has made things a bit easier these days. So, although a real-world connection is ideal, a virtual one – such as through a Q&A forum or a social media platform – can be an equally valuable one.

Working to your strengths

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we work best when we work to our strengths. You will be more productive in your daily work and grow faster in your career if you know what you are good at. This is why some people say they are ‘morning people’ and some are ‘night owls’. Or you are probably great at networking and gathering data but are clueless when it comes to organizing and storing it, in which case, you could work with someone who is good with data management. Richard Primack, an ecologist at Boston University, Massachusetts says that he sticks to the work that he finds personally rewarding. He believes that “working too long on something unpleasant is not a recipe for a successful career.” Highly productive researchers know their ‘zone’ and put their concerted efforts ‘in the zone’ to achieve maximum results.

Do note a couple of points though.

  • Knowing your strengths takes time. It is typically through trial and error that you find your strengths. So, in your early years as a researcher, take up a variety of tasks and activities, and through your mistakes, you will learn what your strengths are.
  • Do not let your 'zone' become a 'comfort zone.' It is vital to keep stepping out of your comfort zone, to keep challenging yourself, from time to time. Apart from helping you grow, this may also help you uncover new strengths.

Taking care of yourself

Life as a researcher can get stressful. The question is, are you dealing with it or just letting it build? If you don’t find ways to manage stress, it will eventually get to a point where your research and you will both suffer. Also, you need to look at both dimensions – physical and psychological – especially because one can affect the other.

Here are some simple ways to practice self-care.

  • Take breaks. Ensure you get some time on weekends for yourself to do the things you enjoy. Take vacations when you can. You can also take mini-breaks at work between periods of strenuous activity.
  • Sleep well. Ensure you get enough sleep and that it is restful: free from noises, distractions, and devices.
  • Take up a physical activity. Research can get very cerebral. A physical activity, such as jogging, yoga, or hiking, can provide a good counterbalance to all that mental work. It also, of course, helps you stay fitter.
  • Talk it out. Bottling up your feelings and emotions can get unhealthy. Share what’s troubling you with a friend, a peer, or a senior who you know will listen without judgment. If that doesn’t help and things get unmanageable, consider seeking professional help.

If you are concerned that putting yourself first will affect your work, it’s quite the opposite. Taking care of yourself helps you be more productive. Need more proof? Read this heartwarming story of how one researcher learned to do both after getting to the brink of exhaustion.

Celebrating success

Success is hard-earned, and should be celebrated. Finished formatting your research paper? Your manuscript got accepted? Every victory, big or small, deserves a celebration. It reminds you to appreciate every step you are taking to meet your ultimate goal.

Because research is seldom a solo effort, it is also great to celebrate those who contributed to your success. So, acknowledge that peer, that supervisor, that reviewer, that co-author, or that collaborator. As one of the greatest scientists of all time, Isaac Newton, once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Here’s to being more productive and successful as a researcher in the days and years to come.

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Published on: Jan 14, 2020

Senior Writer and Editor
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