Strategies for Managing Stress and Boosting Brain Bandwidth

ConcentrationNew Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Science and Social Psychology Research Findings Help Research Administrators

If you’ve been a research administrator or financial administrator working in research administration for any length of time, you’ve figured out one thing: the tremendous pull this job has on your concentration and focus. If you’re like the talented team in my office who are performing cradle-to-grave research administration, the orientation to details, double checking formulas and worksheets, and the weight of forms and online data entry, it’s a sea of work. It’s vitally important to develop strategies to manage cognitive overload, so that you can see your work (spot errors before they are entered), think through the logic of your work process (what is required of your application or your financial process – not to perform it on autopilot), and adjust/incorporate new information in the process of managing work.

Common Strategies for Managing Stress and Maintaining Concentration

  1. Taking a break – at least once an hour for 5-10 minutes, away from your computer.
  2. Eating healthy food and snacks during the work day (my office has nuts, granola bars, green tea and popcorn to fuel hungry minds).
  3. Ask for help – reach out and have your colleagues review your work when you develop Excel blindness or are stuck on your application budget.
  4. Facilitate communication and head off surprises so that you can focus on the work at hand.

Mindfulness and Increased Attention

Harvard Social Psychologist Ellen Langer has conducted research for the last four decades on mindfulness in a variety of aspects of human life, including the performance of complex work. Langer defines “mindfulness” as the process of actively noticing new things – being actively engaged in work or life, rather than not thinking about what you are doing when you are doing it. (Think about it – it happens a lot!)

Langer contends that a mindful context for addressing complex work is identifying the best way to apply rules and guidelines given the context of a particular situation. Langer’s definition of mindlessness in complex work is “one size fits all.”

Langer has shown that mindfulness lead to better performance, increased attention, and better outcomes. In one study, she had symphony musicians, who are often bored to death with playing the same music often – play differently. One group was told to play the same as usual. The second group was told to play the same music, but to play it mindfully. It was the same music, but they brought to the performance in small and perhaps imperceptible ways, their own personal touches. However, this group of musicians were paying attention in a new way. And the results showed that this performance was rated higher.

Langer does not like checklists – she believes that they foster mindlessness (unless they trigger us to be mindful).

Strategies for Improving Mindfulness

  • Are there aspects of your work that are repetitive and boring (like reviewing workflow requests for purchasing, etc)? How can you turn these aspects of your job into something mindful, and challenging? Can you improve the process, turn it into a “game” of sorts, make it new?
  • Can you teach an aspect of your job to someone else, and in the process, become mindful of your work?
  • Is there an aspect of your work that you would like to improve (quality control)? Can you find a team member or colleague that has a similar concern and offer to provide proof reading, etc to them if they will do the same for you?

Brain “Bandwidth” – Factors Affecting Cognitive Capacity index

A team of researchers from Harvard and Princeton have conducted studies to define the effect that specific internal thoughts have on our ability to perform daily tasks. More specifically – they wanted to know if types of external and internal thoughts and experiences could distract or disrupt the cognitive capacity of individuals to such a degree that it would affect their educational achievement or work performance. The answer was yes.

Researchers have known for 40 years that external stimulus (loud repetitive noise) can affect cognitive performance. Sendil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a Princeton psychologist have learned through their research studies that scarcity, an internal stimulus, can also affect cognitive bandwidth available for performing work tasks.

What is scarcity? It’s the internal monologue that occurs when an employee is worried about paying bills, an ill family member, or the cost of day care. Scarcity captures the attention of the employee – because it relates to a pressing need – and reduces attention and focus for other tasks, producing what the researchers call less “bandwidth.” They consider bandwidth to include two aspects of mental functioning – cognitive capacity (problem solving) and executive function (attention, planning and judgement).

Interestingly – it’s not just adverse circumstances that affect cognitive bandwidth. Mullainathan and Shafir found that study participants who were dieting also had bandwidth deficits.

BandwidthCultivating Cognitive Bandwidth

Develop plans and processes to manage aspects of life automatically – to free up bandwidth.

  • Sign up for automatic bill payment and an employer’s 401K plan
  • Schedule breaks and develop an exercise plan for health with a friend or personal trainer.
  • Use services to complete your grocery shopping (Peapod, etc) and stock your pantry with nutritious food. Freeze and reheat healthy meals. Have a group of friends over once a month to cook lunches for everyone to take to work (splits the work of cooking and is lots of fun).
  • If your thoughts are taking over at your desk – get up and walk around – give yourself a time limit to worry (2 minutes, 3 minutes)  and go back to your desk with a bottle of water and your mind clear.
  • Create a space at work for you to go if you need to think about something that you are worried about – or – if you need to capture your thoughts, write them down, but create a process or place where you can boundary your worry and provide yourself a space and a time that you feel better and can productively capture your thoughts and feelings in a time frame that is usable. When you get home, you can review the information and put it to work. The idea is to get the information off your mind at work so you can concentrate and feel better.
  • Most importantly – if you are having long term concerns of any kind – there are often programs through the HR office of many universities that can help you address these types of concerns raised here – use them.

In general – if something is distracting you and it’s minor – take care of it. You will be able to work more effectively if you handle what’s on your mind first. If something more significant is on your mind, and you’re having trouble focusing, it’s best to engage your supervisor to develop a plan on how to manage your work in the short term.

We now have proof that there isn’t enough Diet Coke in the world to power through the data we handle on a regular basis. It’s really important to manage our health, get regular sleep, take breaks and to use the processes here to work smarter – our institutions are counting on it.

The Top Five Efficiency Apps

It’s manage your sanity week! There are five applications that I use virtually NON-stop to manage my brain and my life (on my phone, my iPad and my computer at work) and I’m going to share them here to help you manage your time too!

You’ve already heard me extol the virtues of Toodledo. It’s my fave. You have to use it, and think about how you use folders and tags (I use folders for clients and tags for type of work) but once you figure that out, there’s nothing holding you back from being incredibly productive with Toodledo. It has a ton of fields to capture your to-do data with, so you can customize your list and make it appear exactly as you wish. It has a badge that shows up on the main app icon – a big round number of the to-do items I have going on that week. You can also use alarms and reminders based on the type of deadline you are managing. It’s the best. Totally worth the investment (also available on Android phones).


Do you Doodle? Ok, I know I’m rhyming now (Toodledo, Doodle), but one of my biggest pet peeves is the e-mail from a colleague with a big long list of times to schedule a meeting. Second pet peeve is the painful back and forth on Outlook to schedule and reschedule meetings (which is highly dependent on everyone in your group being on your network – which half the time doesn’t work for my group). Just use Doodle. It’s free. It’s so easy. And anyone – anywhere – at anytime can tell you their availability and confirm their participation. It saves 10 steps. Did I mention it’s free? Just don’t give people 100 options for meeting dates and times!

Whiteboard Pro is available for your Android and Apple Phones and is a must for whiteboard drivers like myself. We have a whiteboard in every room, and we update our team, post our group priority list, and “motivational” ideas on our white board my own office white board has milestones for our departments. To capture key information on white boards from meetings and informal processes, without the whiteboard crap – take a photo – and edit it with Whiteboard Pro. It cleans up all the stuff in the background allows you to send a PDF of the document to your team. You can actually read what you wrote and not have to write it all down. We still talk about what Whiteboard Pro did to the famous “window budget” we had to work with last year. Essential!

Dropbox - Secure backup, sync and sharing made easy.

How many times does your email box fill up in a day with the same  document going back and forth with edits? Large spreadsheets and proposal documents clog my tiny work e-mail box and it doesn’t matter what I do. Cloud computing is here and if you don’t have your head in the clouds, you are spending a lot of time filing emails. Dropbox is an elegant solution! Just use a superb password.



You have heard me expound on the greatness that is Flipboard previously. Forget going to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn through separate web clients. Who has the time. Read more by checking out my previous post I’ve Flipped for Flipboard to find out more about this amazing app, which is available for several types of phones and formats.

These are the five apps I can’t live without. What are yours? Comment below and share your pearls of electronic wisdom!

Managing Multiple Priorities: A How-To-Guide for Keeping Your Sanity


There are specific skills and steps that you can learn to effectively manage multiple priorities – and to actually assess which activities you need to work on first – then next in order to tame your daily and weekly schedule. I’ve tried to organize the best time management advice I can find into one place and to make it “research administrator-friendly.”

Assessing Urgency and Importance

Ask a colleague who is feeling overwhelmed about their workload and its common to hear the phrase “I’m putting out fires left and right” or “they want everything done right this minute.” These are reflections of the perceived urgency of a situation (which may or may not have actual deadlines attached to them). I’m actually working on a project right now that has a lot of importance attached to it, but the faculty member has not deemed it very urgent, because he is not getting back to me with a key piece of information that is required for me to handle the project. The bottom line is that we tend to feel less able to manage our work when we have fewer pieces of information with regard to urgency and importance. When we ask more questions about this, we can better manage our workload.

Key Questions:

  1. What is the deadline for this project?
  2. Who are the key stakeholders?
  3. What are the resources attached to this project (budget, possible award, etc)?
  4. Is there a compliance or regulatory impact to this project?

This is where my Four D rating system comes in! See previous post I WANT IT NOW – Managing When Everything Is An Emergency.

So the question is, what do we do with this information? I tell my colleagues all the time it’s possible to put out more than one fire at a time, or handle more than one emergency (ER’s do this with a triage system not unlike the chart to the right).

Think of this as developing a triage system for your work, with the help of your boss and your colleagues.


1. Get organized by using a to do list or an app that helps you manage your time. Your system should help you understand what you have to do, how long it takes you to do each item on your list and help you rate each item on a priority scale in order to be the most helpful.

TIP: I have personally spent a ton of hours assessing apps for time management, and I’ve fallen in love with Toodledo. It’s head and shoulders above all other apps I’ve tried, including Remember the Milk, which is one that techies seem to love. (Remember the Milk doesn’t work on my iPad, but I’m sure its great). Toodledo tells me which priority items I need to be spending time on. It’s fabulous and I think it’s making me more productive.

2. Break down projects into tasks, and set milestones for progress (with deadlines!) Make sure you’re working under an absolute deadline.

3. Realistically estimate how long it will take you to perform your work and manage expectations with regard to outcomes – communicate with your stakeholders often and make sure they understand how you’re doing on your work. (Ask your colleagues if you’re not sure how long it takes to do a particular task.)

4. Anticipate barriers to progress when you are planning your work and promptly deal with them when they arise. (Your manager is your best ally.)

5. Schedule time to work on your projects and manage distractions. Maximize the time that you do your best work – if you are a morning person – schedule meetings for the afternoon, or vice versa.

6. Take breaks. Don’t plow through work just because you’re stressed or under a deadline.

7. Have co-workers review your work product to ensure accuracy and attention to detail.

8. Do one thing at a time. Research has shown that cognitive ability and accuracy declines when you multitask. Don’t do it or minimize switching back and forth between projects when you’re doing something really important.

9. When you have questions or need help with managing priorities, ask for help. Your manager can help you assess your workload and help you understand which projects need attention and how to swim through a murky mess.

10. While there may be circumstances where we all need to put in late hours occasionally (when proposals are due), it’s important to work a regular work schedule and take vacations.

With a bit of planning and practice, it’s possible to keep your sanity in a very busy and fast-paced environment.

Guiding Faculty through the Funding Process: Nurturing Networks and Supporting the Development of Solid Applications

The presentation that Michelle Schoenecker and I gave at the NCURA meeting last week was very well received. Michelle is from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and provides research administration services to 80 faculty in the school of engineering there. Combined with my work in the Feinberg School of Medicine, we thought our perspectives on assisting faculty with identifying funding opportunities and the resources available to increase their application’s competitiveness (including collaboration resources) and  guiding faculty through the application process might be interesting to talk about. Turns out it was!

The highlights of our presentation included:

  • Research administrators are often the first source of information and feedback as mentoring resources are few and far between at many universities. A lot of universities have very few senior scientists with enough time to guide junior faculty on how to apply and select the right source of funding for their ideas.
    • Research administrators can’t provide opinions or evaluate science, but we can be an objective resource for information for our PI’s, effectively pointing them to the right resources and helping them to identify what they need to answer their questions.
    • The fact that research administrators aren’t scientists is an advantage, and can be beneficial when reading and reviewing proposals for grammar, typos, etc. You don’t have to understand the science to know that the sentence isn’t grammatically correct.
  • In this funding environment, both early-stage and well-established investigators are looking for input and advice, from all points of view, as funders are looking for transformational research ideas.
    • Research administrators can be particularly helpful when making suggestions based on a PI’s funding history, publication record, or the publication record of the investigator’s mentors or their potential collaborators.
    • Identifying tools for finding collaborators is especially useful – and many universities have internally developed tools to assist younger investigators, and are adopting commercially developed tools to assist senior investigators with well established careers. Understanding how these tools work, and pointing your PI’s to them early is helpful.
    • Knowing who has published in an investigator’s field can also be helpful when managing reviewer comments and submission conundrums – “who can I ask about this crazy feedback?” or “how do I determine where to send my application?” questions can be easier to figure out when you suggest that Dr. So and So has perhaps faced similar circumstances.
  • Providing funding information to your investigators depends on the environment you work in, but it all comes down to knowing your audience.
    • If your investigators like e-mail, keep it clean, crisp, easy to read, with links and essential information.
    • Consider new media for early stage investigators who like Twitter feeds and RSS; aggregate multiple sources of information.
    • If your institution already provides tons of information, knowing your investigators already read it, following up with targeted information that provides a recommended RFA may be best.

Additional Resources for Supporting Faculty:

  • How Not To Kill A Grant Application Series: Science
  • Research Funding: Making The Cut.Nature
  • Eisenberg, Mark J. The Physician Scientist’s Career Guide. Springer, 2010.
  •  Schwartz, David, Ed. Medicine, Science and Dreams: The Making of Physician Scientists. Springer, 2010.

It’s a real privilege to co-present with a colleague from another university because it’s an opportunity to share knowledge and really grow professionally and personally – as well as gain new ideas that may benefit your organization. I highly recommend it – hopefully we’ll be able to do it again. (Thanks Michelle!)

REPAIR: Addressing Wrongdoing in Academic Research

The Midwest regional meeting for NCURA opened with a fantastic presentation: Understanding and Responding to Wrongdoing in Research.

The speaker, Dr. James DuBois from St. Louis University discussed his research and the development of a program called REPAIR: Restoring Professionalism and Integrity in Research based on his R21. The foundation of his presentation was the idea that most investigators who have committed wrongdoing are good people who have made bad decisions, and indeed, the audience identified many career pressures and environmental factors that would impact an investigator’s behavior.

He discussed the need to address the impact of wrongdoing in research (more than falsification, fabrication and plagiarism), and that we need to think more broadly than fraud in sponsored research to “wrongdoing” because of the ways that this behavior can impact our institutions.

Wrongdoing in research includes human subjects violations, COI, misuse of funds, failure to protect data, failure to report serious adverse events, and thefts of data, among other types of activity. Dr. DuBois and his colleagues conducted an institution-based needs assessment and a literature review as part of their research and found that the causes of wrongdoing are complex, and that common institutional responses to these situations are inadequate to prevent recidivism.

Interestingly, while 78% of investigators involved in high profile cases were found to have repeated their behaviors (sometimes at other institutions) DuBois estimates that as many as 2/3 could benefit from an active intervention.

Some of the common investigator characteristics that have been identified in case reviews:

  1. Substandard forecasting skills
  2. Poor time management skills.
  3. Poor manager of resources, staff, data, supplies (lab).
  4. Unable to manage stress or deal with obstacles.
  5. Commonly avoided systems they felt mistreated or badly served by (IRB, etc.)
  6. Strong sense of entitlement.
  7. Difficulty with anticipating outcomes when making decisions.
  8. Difficulty with managing emotions.

REPAIR is a research-based intervention that aims to understand frequency and types of investigations at universities, the institutional responses, and use data to design a program to provide strategies that reduce recidivism and maintain the investigator’s role at the institution. REPAIR is set to launch later this year, but the data summarized here are interesting for research administrators.

The ways that we help our faculty manage their relationships with central offices, and the extent that we can advocate on their behalf (we may know that what we are asking is not allowed, but to help faculty feel heard, we should ask anyway) is valuable. In addition, everything we do to help faculty manage their time, finances and projects, all contributes to helping to manage their stress levels.

To learn more, DuBois’ paper on REPAIR will be in the journal Ethics and Behavior in May 2012.

Time Management: Taming Your To Do Expectations

Is this what your days look like? Do the minutes of every hour literally seem like they are going down the drain? If you’re like me, you start your day, raring to go, with your to-do list in hand. With many people making demands on your time, it can be hard to prioritize what to do when, and your to-do list doesn’t get the attention it needs. By 9:30 am, you’ve got 15 e-mails to answer and  5 voice mails to return.  Then you’re in the middle of a meeting with a big project to attend to and an emergency crops up, just as you finish your meeting at 10 am. You’re lucky if you finish one item on your to-do list. Days and weeks become a blur of activity without the results you expect – and need. What can you do?

Time Management for Research Administrators (and Everyone Else)

  1. Tame Your To-Do Expectations: Each day, pick three items on your to-do list you must accomplish in order to be successful that day – that’s all. Then work to accomplish just those three items. They need to be three things that are the highest priority items, that you must have completed. This exercise forces you to focus on what is highest priority, and also to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day. If you can accomplish another item on your to-do list, great. Start with three items. (I’m lucky if I hit all three.)
  2. Anticipate the Unexpected: I love this one, because it means we embrace everything we HATE about our work, and make it better. Yes. The investigator that always turns things in at the last minute, or the colleague that we work with that forgets the form or doesn’t understand the rule, or isn’t good with numbers…in other words, the unexpected takes many forms, but it usually comes to us in similar packages. Plan for it to minimize its impact on your time. It will happen, it’s just a question of how long it takes you to deal with it.
  3. Maximize Your Peak Time: Everyone has a peak energy zone. If you can, try to maximize what you can do in that time, and steer clear of other activities. If you work in an environment where others can help you to do this, see if your team can get in the zone together!
  4. Use Technology to Your Advantage: There are tremendous time management apps and tools now to help manage time and workflow to keep teams and individuals on track. From project management software like smartsheet and 5pm, to social media aggregators like Flipboard, you can manage your time more efficiently and keep your team on track.
  5. Schedule Your Projects from Start to Finish:  Use checklists, calendars, meeting dates, deliverables and other project management tools to schedule your projects (and keep your teams and PI’s) on track with deadlines. Having external deadlines to keep the team on track helps to maintain momentum until the project is done. 
  6. Manage Up, Down and Sideways: Managing people is a skill and an art form. Managing your team members and keeping your managers in the loop is an important and time-saving skill that is worth cultivating. Miscommunication in the workplace can lead to a lot of time lost in getting things done. It is possible, and dare I say a vital skill to “manage from the middle” to move a complicated and multi-layered process forward. Watch others who do this well – practice your skills and ask for feedback.
  7. Hold the Line (As Best You Can): We are skilled professionals in a supportive role. It’s natural to want to give 110% and we do that as best we can, but we are working under marathon conditions – while the individual investigators we serve are sprinting to the finish line with a single grant, or progress report. We need to ensure compliance, and that the proper rules and processes are followed to protect our institutions, and quality work can be produced for each investigator that we serve. There are times (granted, only a few) when we cannot meet our investigators’ expectations. “Please produce this budget for an application that is due in two hours.”
  8. Go to Your Zen Place: You know it happens. Your favorite investigators take you down to the wire, making changes up until the application is due. I put a post it note on the corner of the computer screen and flip my desk clock over. I take a deep breath, and pretend that I have all the time in the world to finish, that it is not the day that the application is due. I send all my calls to voice mail, and tell myself it’s Saturday.  Find your happy place to clear out that adrenaline.
  9. Use your Smart Phone: I use my smart phone alarm and Outlook calendar to remind myself to leave the office by a certain time each day (a terrible alarm goes off), and to schedule regular activities to see that I’ve accomplished them. I always have my phone with me if I’m in a meeting, so its an effective way to make sure I’m staying on track.
  10. Feel a Sense of Accomplishment: Addressing external issues and requests that come up in a timely and efficient way is a GOOD thing! Keeping items off your to-do list is superb time management. Make sure you capture your accomplishments for reporting purposes and celebrate your efficiency.

The work of research administrators is complex and highly interdependent, relying on inputs from department colleagues and central offices. Keeping on track and managing time is essential, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Having a realistic sense of what can be accomplished each day can help to make the work we do more satisfying and a bit less stressful.


I’ve Flipped for Flipboard

I’m presenting in Orlando next week at the Financial Research Administrators conference for NCURA, on Social Media: Making the Wired World Work for You. I’ll be leading a discussion on how research administrators can harness the power of social media to increase effectiveness and share information about research administration to improve quality services. Here’s a little bit about what we’ll be discussing on Tuesday afternoon, March 27 at 4pm at the NCURA Meeting:

Here is the time management tip of the year for everyone who hates going to six million social media sites, remembering a ton of passwords (because you don’t use the same one, now do you) to keep up with your social media, RSS, and news streams. Flipboard. It’s gorgeous. You can use it on your iPhone, iPad or Android phone. I’m sure those of you who are not Flipboard enabled will be soon – it’s the best interface I can find for the apps it brings me, and I’ve looked at a bunch.

Ok, it’s not perfect. There’s no push capability that I can find. But I have forgiven Flipboard for this imperfection. It brings me Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Flickr, and a ton of the news media I normally would love to read, all in the same place. You can link up more than one account, and the interfaces for each make sense (I hate the normal Twitter interface, it makes me nuts).

The look and feel presents you with content in a magazine format with your social media connections in each network behind it. It’s nice, easy to use and not overwhelming. You can easily decide to read and use what you want.

Flipboard is a free download in the iTunes store.