Time management and self-care in research

Tips and tricks to help improve efficiency and personal care for early career researchers.

Written by Jasmin Klich, PhD student at the Max Delbrück Center in Berlin

Working as a life-science researcher can be thrilling and full of excitement. However, because of its challenging nature, it can quickly turn into a seemingly overwhelming struggle. Progressing successfully through one’s project and avoiding the risk of burnout requires a sense of knowing when to give our all, and when to ease off. If we want to continue our development in the spirit of lifelong learning, proper time management and self-care need to be built alongside scientific achievements. Below are five tips on time management and how to promote self-care during your time in the lab.

Realistic goal setting

Setting yourself smaller, realistic goals can help a lot when dealing with challenging tasks or struggling with procrastination. Starting small doesn’t mean you should abandon all your ambitious plans and stick to easier tasks. On the contrary, it is a way to overcome the resentment and anxiety associated with the bigger challenges and enables goals to be tailored to your current situation and needs. Avoid the demotivation of not following a perfectly planned to-do list, and instead create a realistic schedule that is not at full capacity.

If tasks seem overwhelmingly complex, the best response is to break them down into simpler parts. You will get much further in a more manageable way by taking things one step at a time and choosing consistency over intensity.


Cartoon graphic of to-do list


Why is time management important for scientists?

Finding the right time-management technique for you will pay dividends later on. One popular and brilliantly simple method is the Pomodoro Technique, which was developed in the 1980s and continues to grow in popularity for good reason. Using this method, you organize your work into 25-minute working sessions with short breaks in between. It goes well with the rule of starting small and you may be surprised how much can be accomplished in those short sessions of fully focused work (versus hours of switching between tasks and checking email). It is backed by research as a recent study conclusively demonstrated that a systemic approach to taking breaks has a positive impact on mood and efficiency [1].

Another method is simply to keep track of time. You can start a journal or a spreadsheet with a timetable capturing what you did for that day; simply write down your main activities for every 30-60 minutes (or each Pomodoro session, for example). While this may seem like extra work, it will help you gain clarity about what you’re spending time on and it provide insight into how you could be more efficient. This may help you to focus on things that really matter and enable proper task prioritization. Noting your actions can also work as a motivational boost and help you to acknowledge your accomplishments.

wall clock with a warped lower half.


Keep your goals flexible

Starting with a plan gives structure and clarity, which is important for initial progress. However, it is crucial to update the plan and sometimes even drastically change goals, depending on emerging circumstances. Regimentally sticking to a plan may be detrimental in the long run, and it is important to realize that the line between determination and stubbornness can be very thin. Try to find a balance between remembering that and pursuing a general direction toward your goals. It’s useful to maintain some flexibility, such as time in the schedule for unexpected tasks that may require more attention. 

One important aspect of research is the ability to admit mistakes and failures without trying to hide them. As life scientists, we understand more than most that it is impossible to predict everything. Thus, there will always be an element of error in planning, predictions, and outcomes. Reluctance to admit an error and change the approach only creates more problems and will make it harder to change direction further down the line.


Can being a perfectionist cause procrastination?

Research into procrastination describes it as an anxiety-fueled mechanism of postponing tasks. Here, less attention is given to perfectionism, which can also be a huge source of procrastination. Perfectionism is consistently related to psychopathology, maladjustment, and can be an imposter syndrome [2], which ultimately affects our mental health and reduces productivity.

It can be especially tricky to fight perfectionism because it is frequently portrayed as a desirable trait in the work-related context. The first step is to acknowledge it in your actions and assess whether it is actually causing harm. It can be observed in various contexts, such as waiting for perfect circumstances to complete a task or being obsessed with details but missing the bigger picture.

Often, there will never be a ‘right’ moment to start. Instead, you may find that once started you enter a good flow and complete tasks sooner than predicted. And even if that’s not the case, it’s much better to have something incomplete to work on than to start from scratch (or not start at all because of growing anxiety). Allowing some dose of imperfection prevents poor management of energy and futile work. 

Big and demanding tasks can’t be finalized in one go, which is why it can be very discouraging to work on them. You can’t finish your thesis or paper on the same day you started it, but that should not stop you from starting in the first place. Planning and taking small steps will help you reach the final goal and allow you to recognize small victories along the way.


Why is rest so important?

The topic of rest is crucial and should not be overlooked. The importance of good quality sleep cannot be ignored, as sleep enables long-term memory consolidation, working by replaying neuronal firing patterns [3]. Similar results translate to waking rest [4]. Thus, you can think of breaks as a consolidation of everything accomplished during that working time. Often, when not actively engaged in a task, you can see it from different angles and perhaps be inspired (just think about Archimedes and his eureka moment in a bathtub!).

It is impossible to stay focused and engaged in highly intellectually demanding tasks for long hours every day. Instead of handling less important tasks in between just to feel busy, have a real rest. Stopping just to dwell on all the things you are supposed to do next doesn’t count.

We can define work as time spent earning money, but ‘leisure’ can be equally exhausting and sometimes even stressful. Fulfilling passions and engaging in valued activities outside your profession is very important, but it can also be beneficial to schedule some time to do nothing (or at least have no agenda for that period). Trying frantically to be as productive as possible all the time may have the opposite effect in the long run, causing exhaustion and burnout.


alarm clock under a blanket



I hope you learned something useful or found comfort in sharing similar struggles. As we want to keep learning and growing in our lives, there will always be something unfinished on our to-do list and a new problem to solve. It can form both a sense of purpose and frustration. Knowing the principles and habits of our working process can help us to minimize the latter and open a way to improvement.




[1] Biwer F, Wiradhany W, Oude Egbrink MGA, de Bruin ABH. Understanding effort regulation: Comparing 'Pomodoro' breaks and self-regulated breaks. Br J Educ Psychol. 2023 Mar 1. doi: 10.1111/bjep.12593. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36859717.

[2] Steinert C, Heim N, Leichsenring F. Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Other Work-Related Mental Problems: Prevalence, Types, Assessment, and Treatment-A Scoping Review. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Oct 11;12:736776. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.736776. PMID: 34707522; PMCID: PMC8542725.

[3] Brodt S, Inostroza M, Niethard N, Born J. Sleep-A brain-state serving systems memory consolidation. Neuron. 2023 Apr 5;111(7):1050-1075. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2023.03.005. PMID: 37023710.

[4] Wamsley EJ. Memory Consolidation during Waking Rest. Trends Cogn Sci. 2019 Mar;23(3):171-173. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2018.12.007. Epub 2019 Jan 22. PMID: 30683602; PMCID: PMC7024394.