Increase Your Lab Efficiency (and Make Henry Ford Proud)

Becoming more efficient as a scientist is constant struggle. This post will touch upon a couple of methods to help increase productivity that only take a few minutes to setup, but can pay serious dividends – standardization and delegation.  While you may not find yourself in this exact situation, hopefully there is something you can take away.  If you have any tips, tricks or systems of your own you’d like to share feel free to leave a comment.


Step 1. Think about tasks that you repeat each week.  Next compile a list of the mundane tasks, which include items that do not involve any key decisions or creativity.

Step 2. Write protocols down in (agonizing) detail. For example, consider a common daily task such as putting away clean dishes. It may seem like it only takes a few minutes per day, but when optimizing for efficiency every minute counts. Many labs hire dishwashers to manage glassware and save time for the lab, but if the time saved not washing and putting away dishes is spent looking for randomly put away glassware, it would defeat the purpose of hiring help. However, by implementing a standard protocol the task becomes easy to repeat and predictable. Key to the process is that the instructions are written or officially documented so that anyone can step in and perform the job with the same quality and efficiency.

Step 3. Share the instructions with the lab. A great way to keep track of documentation is by creating a google site, which is a simple free webpage that can be password protected.  A google site doesn’t require any programming or web development background so it’s easy to get up and running.  A webpage saves time compared to digging through old notebooks, dissertations or tracking down people that left the lab years ago.

Step 4. Delegate. In the science world, let’s say you are trying to purify a novel protein. It may take weeks or months to work out the exact purification scheme, but eventually you’ll develop a consistent method for producing your desired results. And at that point, you should consider the opportunity to turn a labmate into a protein-purification machine. It may be scary at first, but if you’ve documented everything properly, you’ll find the fear will subside as high-quality protein appears regularly in your refrigerator.


To ensure a smooth transition when delegating, write out protocols with the most junior member of the lab in mind – could they take your instructions and perform the purification properly? I will often write out calculations so that only weighing out the substance is needed.  Although writing out minute details takes time, in the long run it reduces questions and errors.  Most of the information should already be in your lab notebook anyway, so it will be less painful than you think.

We all start off in lab as novices, but as we attempt to learn and gain experience, it’s nice to be given clear instructions. Standardized documentation not only increases quality and consistency, it provides an opportunity to offload some of the tasks that become routine as we develop as scientists.


Sean Seaver is the Founder of the start up called P212121 that brings together the best deals on research chemicals and supplies. In his miniscule spare time, he enjoys reading and swimming.


Have any tips for making daily labwork more efficient?



6 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Ragamuffin

    wrote on December 21, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    I appreciate the emphasis on importance of "agonizingly detailed" protocols. This is something that I put effort into during my lab manager years, and have been surprised in my rotation labs thus far that protocols, if they even exist, are fairly devoid of helpful content. One of the labs is brand new, so I'm taking the opportunity to create "extended versions" of those protocols that I am using. This seems particularly important in a new lab where there is sometimes great overlap in who contributes to getting projects up and running.

    I would also suggest Dropbox in Step 3…

    Thanks, Sean!

  2. Sean

    wrote on December 21, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Hi Ragamuffin,

    Establishing a protocol system early on is critical as it can have momentum. People will be coming at it from the point of view of this is 'how it should be done' instead of 'why are we doing this'…

    The hardest part is getting labs started, the time savings is massive in the longer term, but that initial effort keeps many from taking the plunge.

    Good point about Dropbox (public folder for new users) also worth considering is Quartzy (, which is a free platform designed around lab management.

    Thanks for the comment!


    PS > All the best with the PhD!

  3. [email protected]

    wrote on December 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I agree with both of you. Beyond the immediate benefits of increased efficiency, creating detailed protocols will also benefit you long term as others take over your project when you leave. If new people come in and can't repeat what you've done, it will hurt your reputation – even if it's not justified. The difference could be a seemingly insignificant detail that you used to do, but that the new people aren't – and depending on how long it's been since you left the lab, it can be hard to recall those years later. Best to protect yourself now and create a detailed protocol. (And what better way to do it than with video?…)

  4. Ragamuffin

    wrote on December 24, 2011 at 1:43 am

    Alan — I totes used Benchfly videos to prep for my next rotation in a cell culture lab.

  5. [email protected]

    wrote on December 24, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Awesome! (I'm assuming it was the How to make an old-fashioned video…)

  6. Ragamuffin

    wrote on December 26, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    hah! i missed that one. but i find myself practicing this particular technique in grad school more than ever before…

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