How to Make Marginal Gains in Your Research

Like I said in earlier articles on reading, writing, and social media, marginal gains are small improvements that add up through the value of compounding. So, what small improvements can you make improve your workflow?

The first step might be to list all of the things you did today. And then repeat that for a week. Now you have a list of tasks. What’s on every day? Take those tasks and write the process you follow. Is it efficient? Could you make it easier or faster? Could you challenge your beliefs or superstitions and do it differently? Make the change. Test if it is quicker. Now, remember we’re looking for a gain in minutes, not hours. These improvements are small, but their compounded impact – across days, and processes – will give you extra time.

Here are some questions that might help challenge your thinking on making improvements.

Do you print every article before you read it? Or do you read on screen? Could you read on screen more? Do you read only on a big screen (e.g. computer or tablet) or could you read on your phone? Thus, allowing you to read “In the cracks of time”, such as waiting in-line for a coffee. Do you download and cue your articles to read? Or search and find when you have time? Do you use a program like OneNote or Evernote to clip the article PDF, and highlight text digitally? Do you type summaries of articles? Making it easier to search your notes or ideas?

If you can only read printed words, do you print in advance? Or on demand? Again, printing in advance means you get spend less time deciding what to read, and more time reading.

Yes, we could be talking less than a minute here. But, like I said, these are marginal gains. Small gains that add up. Think about saving 20 minutes (1 minute per article) every month. And that’s just finding what to read. Now add it reading on the go – commuting; waiting for coffee. That could mean you find another minute or two per article. Now we’re looking at 40 minutes. That’s a whole additional article you could read each month, 12 per year! That 5% boost in performance could be the difference between funding or not. Promotion or not. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying work any more hours. In fact, I’d advise most full-time academics to cut their hours. Get them as close to 40 per week as possible. That in itself will increase your productivity.

Send out lots of similar emails? Look at

the common parts and create quick

keys or snippets that you cut and paste.

What about how you deal with email? Is it ad hoc or planned? Does email work for you? Or do you work to manage your email?

Now think about your office set-up. At home, is it conducive to work? Or is it the kitchen table? Is the printer within reach (if you like reading printed words, rather than on the screen)? Are distractions removed, or present?

Of course, we’re not back in the office as yet. But what is that environment like? Is it hard to find stuff on your desk? Is there a system to the organisation of things? Are meetings scheduled in advance or are there ad hoc things that always come up? Could you pre-schedule some work to remove the time taken just to plan – what should be – a weekly catch up?

In the lab – do you batch create reagents and materials? Or do you create as needed. When I was in the lab, we made our own (SDS-PAGE) gels. For the 3 or so years of my PhD I spent in the lab, I did at least 4 of these per week. So, I batch created all of the reagents necessary at 10 times the concentration. So, weekly I’d dilute these batches into the working concentration. Then when it came time to make and run the gels, all I had to add were the reagents responsible for turning the liquid into a gel and load my samples.

Now, you might not run gels. Or even know what they are. But the question is the same – do you batch create your reagents, and materials? Or are they created on demand?

Another example. We’d set-up samples for visualisation under a confocal microscope. The samples were light and temperature sensitive. So, they’d be kept in the fridge. The containers we used were clear. So we’d also cover them in foil. Eventually, I got sick of doing that. So spray painted the outside of some of these boxes matte black. It worked just as well, and saved time (and money).

These are all opportunities for marginal gains. So, while you’re not in the office. While you’re working from home. While you might have some additional time – why not look at the way you work for opportunities for marginal gains?


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@drrichardhuysmans.com) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).