Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Aztec Calendar Conundrum: organization and project management

As time becomes more and more limited and things to do multiply, I am looking for good ways to organize my days and projects and keep everything straight. I am starting to understand why PI's tend to ask the dreaded question "What am I looking at?". The student thinks their project is all important, but the PI has too much on her/his minds to remember exactly which experiment you are doing and want help on.

What to do when your calendar looks more like an Aztec one?
During the past year, I have tested a few different time and project management sites and here is what I found. This is in no way a comprehensive analysis, but just the results of hours of googling and trying.

I used HiTask for 6 months and liked it a lot. It's a calendar, task manager and project manager all in one. You have a calendar where you can schedule events (talks, meetings, etc) and plan experiments. You have task manager where you can list everything you need to do and assign specific tasks to projects. And finally you have a project manager where you can invite your lab members and assign tasks to them directly. The calendar is nice and handy and the task manager is very straightforward (though not very organized once tasks are completed). You can assign priority levels, star specific tasks and keep track of a lot of different things.

Example from the HiTask website
Unfortunately, HiTask forbids me to use the site now because I have reached the maximum number of free tasks. There was no prior information on whether there was a limit to the free account and even if I went back and cancelled my tasks from 6-months before, it still didn't allow me to use it. This really annoyed me! To keep using the site I have to pay $8/month. If it was just me, I would have considered it because it's a very well designed site, but I think it's not worth it for the whole lab: $8/month for 5-10 people would be $480-960 a year and you'd have to remember to cancel whenever someone leaves or for temporary students. However, I would definitely recommend it for personal organization.


After HiTask, I went back online and I found Asana. After co-founder Dustin Moskowitz left Facebook, he created Asana, a project management platform to provide "a single version of the truth about what everyone is doing" (see more on Bloomberg BusinessWeek here).  Like the yoga pose it is named after, Asana may not be straightforward right away: it needs concentration and thinking on how and why you want to use needs practice. But man, it is powerful and beautiful and completely customizable, and you can plan your entire life on it! And everyone else's life for that matter. And it is free for groups with less than 30 members.

The intro videos are very useful and in fact necessary, because you'd have no idea what to do without them. The help team is also very responsive. There are many ways to run Asana and organize your workspace: public and private. I split my workspace in Lab space and a personal space which is not accessible to others. In the Lab space I have pages for individual projects where each project is mapped out: I set headings for different parts of the project (Intracellular signaling, Learning and memory) and then use each task for a question that requires one large experiment each, e.g. Does my protein of interest regulate AKT signaling? Within each task you can set subtasks with specific due dates (Transfect cells, Drug treatment, Run Western) and keep adding them as many times as you need to repeat the experiment until the question is answered. You can then assign whole tasks or just subtasks to specific people, and lab members can plan their own work or expand on the assignment as they wish or assign tasks to you.
In addition of the individual project pages where you can generate an overview of what needs to be done, you then have your own task page where every task can be listed day by day independently of project so that you actually know how much you have to do. The organization of this page still needs some work, I think, since the sorting can be awkward and there is no calendar view to remind you of scheduled meetings and seminars. However, sorting my tasks for the day on Asana has become a routine by now. The only drawback is that it is not super user friendly and you would actually have to take the time to train people to use it.

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