It’s so easy to get used to a certain way of life or be immersed in a particular culture, to the point that we are almost blind to alternate ways of doing things. This is often the case in the lab, where many of us have been there for years and years, and this is “just the way that we do things”.
I remember being a student and hearing that exact phrase from older laboratorians when I would ask a question. I always took that answer as a challenge: What can we change? What can we fix? Now, as a slightly older laboratorian myself, I have caught myself using that same phrase, “this is just the way we do things.” Ugh – gut check! Perhaps it’s time for a pause. There are always varying ways of doing something, and often, there may be a simpler, better way. Let’s consider some ways to make lab life easier, instead of just resigning ourselves to the same old way that we’ve always done it.
Learn the layout The bleach residue on the benchtop indicates that your trusty centrifuge has not been moved from its current location at any point over the last 20 years. Do you find yourself walking 20 extra steps to that centrifuge, instead of moving it to a better location? Spend a day tracing your steps and consider the optimal location for each piece of equipment you touch. Take an informal poll. Chances are, most of you are thinking the same thing about what might work better in your area. Are the items you use most often within easy reach? After a day of assessment, make changes that seem most obvious and test your layout the next day. This doesn’t have to mean demolition and reconstruction. Even a few simple moves—swapping the printer and computer or rearranging a shelf—can simplify your workday.
Trash the trash Do you constantly rummage through drawers full of junk to try to find the one item you actually use regularly in that drawer? Do you have supplies with a received date from the last century? Oh, how excited we get to find a box of slides received in 1988. But why in the world do we have that? We may be “lab rats”, but let’s not be “pack rats”! Spend a day getting rid of junk. Clear out those overfilled drawers with supplies from yesteryear. Do you have three cytospins but only use one? Free up your benchtop by donating items to local schools or research labs. If you haven’t used the item in the last 5 years, you probably don’t need it. And if you really can’t part with something, at least store it somewhere out of the way, allowing you to better use the space in your work area. It can be scary to actually get rid of stuff, but decluttering can increase efficiency by freeing up space around you for the things you actually use.
Purge the paper Thankfully, electronic systems have greatly reduced the amount of paperwork in our labs. But they have not eliminated our paper problem entirely. It’s still easy to be overwhelmed by how much paperwork and documentation we require. I have talked about standardizing your documentation before, and how it can cut down your paperwork and improve your workflow. Definitely consider those ways of streamlining your forms and records to make life easier. When the binders and boxes are full, don’t hesitate to get them out of your way! Most of our institutions already contract with archival companies, so make sure to use them. Request frequent pickup for full boxes and implement an archival schedule that accommodates the needs and requirements of your lab.
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It can be difficult to declutter our workspace, to get rid of stuff, to make changes. We like to hang on to the “old”, where we are most comfortable, where we know what to expect. Don’t be afraid to consider alternate ways of doing things that may simplify and improve your lab life. Have you uncovered “ancient treasures” in your lab? Have you taken any steps to “lean” your laboratory? How has your workday been impacted by simplifying? I’d love for you to comment below with your stories and experiences.
Brandy Neide, MBA, MT(ASCP)
Brandy has been a clinical laboratory scientist in the Philadelphia region for 13 years. Her areas of expertise include laboratory-developed molecular infectious disease diagnostics, quality management, regulatory compliance, and competency assessment in high-complexity laboratory settings. In her “free” time, she enjoys spending time with her adventurous husband and 4 energetic children. Connect with Brandy on LinkedIn.