10 Commandments of Working in Academia During a Pandemic

Brian D. Gonzalez, PhD; Moffitt Cancer Center


1.  Thou shalt not read or reply to e-mail until the end of the day.

  • Doing so early in the day has you doing work that isn’t cognitively demanding while you’re at your cognitive prime. Better to hold off until later in the day when your cognitive ability may better match the cognitive demands of responding to e-mails.
  • How? Schedule a half hour per day at the end of the day to reply to e-mails. Literally make a calendar appointment for this. Don’t open your e-mail until the set time. And turn off e-mail notifications on your computer so you don’t hear “ding” all day. If you happen to have a few minutes before the next meeting, then maybe delete a few unnecessary e-mails or send quick replies to easy ones. But anything that’ll take more than 30 seconds should wait until the end of the day.

2.  Thou shalt delegate that which thou can delegate

  • Another way of putting this is to “only do what only you can do” - Andy Stanley. If at all possible, delegate to your staff things that aren’t “top of license” for you. Some argue this is inefficient. But although a trainee may be very slow at a task the first few times you assign it to them, eventually they can become proficient at it.
  • How? For a week or two, ask yourself at the start of any given task, “Is there anyone in my organization who could a) benefit from this experience or b) whose job it is to do this?” If the answer is Yes, then find a way to tactfully implement it into their workflow.

3.  Thou shalt lean on digital communications

  • Except e-mail. If you’re following commandment # 1, you may be hard to reach until the afternoon. That’s kind of the point. But what if your study team needs you sooner? That’s where Slack comes in. Or Microsoft Teams. Both make it easy to communicate as needed and when needed, without the formality of e-mail or the intrusion of a phone call.
  • How? Ask your IT team if they have a preferred solution for you to use. If not, try Slack which is free. Maybe just try it out with one or two team members at first.

4.  Thou shalt use an electronic lab notebook

  • This is a must-have, especially when anyone on the team is working remotely. This is where agendas go before meetings, where notes are taken during meetings, and where decisions are documented throughout the progress of a study or manuscript.
  • How? Try Confluence, which is very cheap ($100 per year) for a team < 10 users. It has a point & click user interface, is easy to learn, and makes it easy for a team to stay on the same page while working in different places.

5.  Thine e-mails shall get to the point

  • Write e-mails as if the reader follows the first Commandment. Giving the reader the purpose of the e-mail upfront allows them to triage. If it’s a quick question, they may answer you briefly between meetings. If it’s something that’ll take them time to digest and reply to, they may hold off for now.
  • How? Start off your e-mail with a brief salutation, and in the next sentence explain the purpose of the e-mail. For example, “I’m writing to ask if you’d be willing to join an upcoming grant application.” If there’s more, provide that in a subsequent paragraph. If it takes more than 5 minutes to compose the e-mail, make it a request to meet.

6.  Honor thy private time

  • Allowing work to encroach on private time is particularly easy these days, with your work occurring in your home. Set up a workplace and work hours that will not spill out into the rest of the home or your schedule. Working at all possible hours of the day just because you “can” is a recipe for quick burnout.
  • How? Set a sort of mental barrier between your workplace and home space by only doing work in a certain area and never doing work outside that area. Also, set a limit of what your work hours will be and stick to them.

7.  Thou shalt under-promise and over-deliver

  • Anticipate some disruptions when planning ahead. If it typically takes a month to do something, assume it’ll take two months due to limited ability to communicate and limited productivity if your work environment took a hit.
  • How? Bake in this extra time into your estimates for when you can get stuff done. And practice politely declining stuff you can’t get to soon by explaining you “don’t have the bandwidth at the moment.”

8.  Thou shalt not make things longer more complicated than necessary

  • Like lists of productivity recommendations, for example. If you can get the point across in fewer words, do it.

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