Things that make multiple research projects different and single project:

  1. Inertia that sets in once I have spent a few weeks on single one of them. The 'switching cost' seems too high to me, and it leads to not much being done first few days of switching to the other project.

  2. Pressure of producing 'visible' results every few months to keep manager/sponsors happy.

  3. Pressure of keeping up with literature related to multiple topics.

What can I do optimize my work productivity?

  • 9
    Delegate tasks to grad students/post-docs, if you've got them
    – Paul
    Jan 30, 2014 at 20:39
  • 14
    Tunnel vision can become a huge problem and can really bog things down. When I need to take a mental respite from one research project, I hop on another one and use it as my 'vacation'. Rinse, rotate, and repeat. Jan 30, 2014 at 20:43

3 Answers 3


There is no easy solution to the "task switching" problem; it really is a strong function of how you work.

In my previous job, I had a rather distressingly large number of projects to work on—as many as eight or nine, depending on how you define a project—at any one time (oddly enough, my academic position requires me to work on just as many projects, but in a supervisory capacity). For me, what helped to have to "task switch" was the fact that I had to provide regular progress updates at team meetings, and meet deadlines for the project. I couldn't spend weeks on a single project, because then I'd have to scramble to meet the approaching deadlines for everything else I was working on. So deadlines and meetings where you have to talk about your progress are good ways to make sure you keep on top of things.

With respect to literature, I'd suggest setting aside some time each week for literature searches and literature reviews. I'd also use this as a chance to "switch gears" for a bit—use this time to keep up to date on the project that isn't taking up the majority of your time.

Finally, if you're going to put away a project for several weeks or more, then you should definitely keep good records before switching your focus. Make sure you leave yourself a note of what you just finished working on, where you left things off, and what you think the next steps for the project should be after you return to it. That way, you're not figuring out where you left off—you've told yourself how to get yourself back on track.

  • Your answer helps a lot. Many thanks!
    – Yu Gu
    Sep 7, 2022 at 10:56

So you have highlighted some of the negatives of switching between topics, but you should also consider some positives:

  • These projects open up different journals/conferences/spaces/collaborators to work with, which is always nice.
  • It can help prevent burnout. If you're sick and tired of working on the same thing day in, day out, you can switch for a little while to freshen things up.
  • It can actually boost productivity. If you've hit a wall with something, or it's just going to take a long time for the first project to finish, you can switch for a little while and let the previous project cook on the back burner while you get something else done.

There's definitely a time management problem, and it is occasionally a hard one, but working on a single project puts all your eggs in one potentially failure prone, potentially exhausting basket.


Research assistants. I really don't understand why someone would spend an hour tediously filling numerous arrays of vials with cell-growth solution when they could just pay some high schooler $12/hour to do the same. Or even unpaid volunteers/interns.

Think of all the new research we could do if every researcher used at least one research assistant.

  • 7
    Having both been and supervised said people, the time it takes to get them up to speed to the point where you can rely on their results is non-trivial. It also doesn't help with any aspect of the OP's question beyond purely mechanical tasks.
    – Fomite
    Jun 16, 2015 at 23:59
  • 1
    Okay well maybe we're thinking of different types of work. Or maybe you need to work on better methods of debriefing them on your projects. Jun 17, 2015 at 0:07

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