Time Management for the Research Professional

It's been said that a pharmaceutical company loses $1 million for every day of delay during clinical research and development. This is a theoretical cost related to the dramatic reduction in sales when a drug product loses patent protection and becomes subject to generic competition. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, as clinical research professionals, we must be excellent managers, not just of others, but of our own time, as well.

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The clinical research industry has certain characteristics that make time management more difficult. Nearly every activity must be thoroughly documented, from the simple phone call that a Clinical Research Associate (CRA) may make to confirm a site visit, to a study subject’s seemingly irrelevant seasonal rhinitis.

Due to regulatory requirements or quality standards, many of the tasks we do cannot be easily delegated. That study evaluation must be done by the Principal Investigator even though a nurse could do it just as well. That monitoring visit must be made by a qualified Clinical Research Associate, even though much of the task is rather mundane.

How then does the clinical research professional manage their most precious commodity? Fortunately, there is no secret to time management. It’s simply a matter of understanding a few concepts, using a few tools appropriately, and, most importantly, religiously practicing the techniques and strategies. Some of the most useful time management concepts are:

  • setting goals,
  • examining how you spend time with a time log,
  • using To Do lists,
  • using delegation,
  • avoiding interruptions, and
  • handing paperwork.


Goal Setting

Goals are a carefully designed list of intentions based on guiding principles and values. Goals serve as a compass to align activities with purpose. Goals provide the why that inspires the how.

Our corporate goals are easily discerned: “to develop products that improve people’s lives and make a profit for our stakeholders.” Your company probably posts something to this effect on the walls of your office space. As individuals, we should likewise develop a list of personal goals and commit these to writing. Our personal goals should address all aspects, including social, health, career, education, family, spiritual, retirement, and community goals.

We should confront areas where these goals conflict with each other, or with the company goals, and find ways to reach a healthy compromise or at least set an order of priority. It may be difficult to pursue a second degree while traveling as a Clinical Research Associate, so maybe getting that promotion should be your first goal!

Follow these steps to develop your list of goals:

  • Audit your guiding principles, selecting those values that you would fight passionately to defend.
  • Write intermediate and short-term goals that align with these values for each aspect of your life.
  • Make each goal “S-M-A-R-T”: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Trackable.
  • Write an action plan, describing the steps you must take to accomplish each goal.
  • Review, revisit, revise, and renew your goals continuously.

Time Logs

A time log is a diagnostic tool used to identify unproductive time and places for improvement. To be useful, it should be private, personal, and not a requirement of your job. It is not intended to be a permanent routine, but rather it should be something you periodically do for a day or two as a way to analyze how your time is spent.

The best format is a log book where you record, at fifteen minute intervals, what you are doing (the category) and why you are doing it (the function). When completed, review the log, tally the results by category, and then ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I doing that doesn't really have to be done?
  • What am I doing that could be done by someone else?
  • What am I doing that could be done more efficiently?
  • What am I doing that wastes the time of others?

To Do Lists

An old adage states that 20% of your time generates 80% of your results; conversely, 80% of your time is spent on tasks that produce only 20% of your results. Using a daily written list of “To Do” tasks is a well known method to focus your energies on the most important tasks.

Simply write down the tasks you need to accomplish each day, breaking the big tasks into easily accomplished pieces, and then classify and prioritize the list. I prefer to classify tasks as “A’s” (crisis items and those projects with high impact even if no immediate deadline), “B’s” (other projects perhaps not as important to me as to someone else or those that can be reasonably postponed), and “C’s” (in truth, not really important to anybody, but just something I want to do). I then prioritize each task within a category, as in A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, etc. Focus on completing the “A’s” and procrastinate on the “C’s.” Cross off the tasks you accomplish and carry forward any others to be reprioritized the next day.

Points to keep in mind regarding To Do lists:

  • Use only one list — planner system, notebook, or calendar — for home as well as work.
  • Update the list at the end of the day, rather than the morning, when the tasks are fresh in your mind and you can get a quick start the next day.
  • Consider the penalty, impact, and payoff of assigning a particular category and priority to a task. High impact items may have no deadline, but may still be career-breakers or career-makers.
  • Review you goals and action plans each day prior to compiling your list. Schedule in the action items that will get your closer to your goals.
  • Before you start a task that is not on your list, ask yourself, “Will what I am about to do move me closer to my objectives?” If not, reschedule it, or avoid doing it at all.
  • Give yourself time to relax, meditate, or “goof-off.” But do so as a conscious decision and not when it wastes the time of others.

Using Delegation

Even if you are not a supervisor, don't exclude delegation as a useful tool. In this service-oriented economy, there is always someone, or some vendor, that can help you accomplish more with the time you have. Even letting a travel agent book that flight may save you five minutes that you can spend on an “A1” task that you might not otherwise have. In our team-based management structures, it is also often possible to delegate sideways (to another team member) or sometimes even upward (to your manager), albeit such delegation should be made cautiously and in the context of accomplishing larger departmental goals.

The important thing to remember is that you are delegating the work, not the ultimate responsibility to see that it is done correctly. That means you must empower your assistant with the knowledge and tools he or she may need to do the job, and then monitor the project. Delegate the result, but let your assistant determine the process, without your meddling. Yet, set up a feedback system, perhaps a daily or weekly status report, where you can feel comfortable that the task is being addressed. If the consequences are not too great, let your assistant learn from his or her mistakes. Never punish someone who legitimately tried, for the failure was more likely a result of inadequate communication, training, or support.

Other ways you may save time using delegation:

  • Hire someone to do yard work, housework, and other routine home chores, saving that time to spend with your family. This helps reduce anxiety you or they may feel about your career chores.
  • Hire specialists to handle things you could do yourself, but probably not as well or as quickly.

Avoiding Interruptions

Telephone calls and colleagues who “drop-in” are the biggest consumers of our precious time. You may feel the need to chat just to avoid being called rude, or it may be an easy way to avoid tackling that tough priority task on your To Do list. Regardless, learning to handle such interruptions is a paramount time management skill.

First, you should analyze how much time you spend just chatting. You will likely find that this represents a good portion of your day.

Second, try the following ways to reduce the time spent on these activities:

  • Have a receptionist or even voicemail screen your calls. Then you can prioritize the return call in with your other To Do items.
  • Plan your calls. Group them together and schedule them for a less productive time.
  • Train your callers. Give them instructions on how, why, and when to call you. Set-up a preferred time to take calls and then instruct people to call you then, especially when playing phone tag.
  • Cut small talk. End the call abruptly; don't drag it out. The caller will generally recognize that your time is valuable, rather than being offended.
  • Time your calls to make yourself aware of how much time is spent.
  • When a visitor arrives, stand up. Make them talk on their feet or even drag them out to neutral territory, say you were on the way to the coffee pot or restroom.
  • Go see someone in their office rather than let them come to yours.
  • Stay on track. Say “I only have three minutes that I can give you right now, if that is not enough time I can schedule you an appointment for later when I can give you my undivided attention.”
  • Rearrange your furniture with your back to the window or door. Eye contact is regarded as an invitation to come in.
  • Publicize an Open Door/Closed Door policy. Tell everyone that your prime work time is when your door is closed and you need to be left alone during this time with the understanding that later your door will be open to discuss their needs. Never use a Door-Always-Closed policy as you will lose touch with your organization and inhibit open communication.
  • If you work in a cubicle, post a sign on your wall that you are currently focusing on a project and wish not to be disturbed. Of course, this only works if everyone will agree to the same policy. Preach the dicipline!
  • Take advantage of “flex time,” where you arrive early or stay late, if your company offers it. Avoiding the traditional office “chat times” may give you uninterrupted time to devote to your “A” list.
Handling Paperwork

Clinical research is a regulated industry; thus, by definition, the nature of our business is paperwork! Effectively handling paperwork is, thus, an important component of successful time management for the clinical research professional. The following suggestions may be valuable in this regard:

  • Clutter breeds confusion and distrust, especially among co-workers. You should develop a clean desk habit.
  • Take work to a separate area, if possible. Never use your desk to store work that will not be addressed that day.
  • Always tidy up your desk before you leave for the day. This allows you to start each day fresh and to decide each day’s priorities.
  • Handle only one document at a time and then only handle it once, if possible. Use the “R-A-F-T” system: Refer, Act, File or Trash it immediately.
  • Get it out of sight, but put an entry on your To Do list if its needed for later action.
  • Resist file cabinets. Use the “F-F-F” system: Fewer, Fatter, Files. Don't spend time carefully filing a document that you may rarely, if ever, look at again.
  • Schedule time for reading, especially time that would otherwise be non-productive, such as on a flight to monitor that clinical research site.
  • Share the reading. Highlight and abstract important points so that others won't have to read the entire article. Ask them to do the same for you.
  • Skim and scan for the important points before deciding if you need to read the entire document.
  • Learn speed reading techniques. Time yourself to increase your awareness and concentration.
  • Ask to be taken off the distribution list for documents that don't pertain to you.
  • Schedule a time to read and respond to your mail, rather than allowing it to interrupt your schedule.
  • Use a “slush” file to store documents which are not important enough to file permanently, but about which you feel uncomfortable discarding just yet.
  • In handing correspondence, consider writing your response on the original, running it through the copier for your files (if you must), and then returning the original to the sender.
  • Purge your files annually or when a project ends. You will then be able to find needed items and will save on storage costs.
Conducting Productive Meetings

Meetings are probably the biggest enemy of time management that a clinical research project manager every invented. Video and telephone conferencing technology has only served to increase the number of meetings. Meetings, in theory, have value. They allow the free flow of ideas and information and they build camaraderie and commitment. However, unproductive or excessive meetings can have just the opposite effect.

Here's how to reduce meetings and make the few that are necessary more important:

  • Be sure you have a specific goal to accomplish or a valid reason before you schedule a group meeting.
  • Generally, meetings that involve more than a small work team are simply informational. Unless it is necessary to sell the participants on the information, there are usually better ways to share information: send a newsletter, post it on an internal website.
  • Have a written agenda and see that everyone gets a copy well in advance of the meeting so that they can bring the necessary information or formulate possible solutions.
  • If you are the meeting leader, enforce ground rules of openness, frankness and confidentiality. Don't allow participants to dance around the issues, get defensive, or attempt to place blame.
  • Follow a policy of “anything goes, but everything stays within these walls.”
  • Follow-up the meeting with a written action plan, detailing what agreements were made and who assumed responsibility for them. Keep it to one page, if possible.
  • Segment the meeting so that the parts where everyone is needed come first, followed by breakout groups that tackle any remaining issues. Be aware of everyone else's time and let participants go whenever they are no longer needed.
  • Start and end the meeting on time, ALWAYS. Don’t let teammates get into the habit of assuming the meeting will not get started on time, and thus, arriving late. Likewise, be courteous that attendees have other committments; schedule a follow-up meeting (or better yet, distribute the information in the minutes) if you can't finish on time.

Clinical research is a time-intensive, costly activity. But, employing these simple time-management techniques can help increase the efficiency of this process and help bring new medical products to market faster for the millions who so desperately need them.