The Decider

Over the past year, I have settled into my first tenure track position, found my feet in a new town and new department, and I am still setting up a laboratory of my own. There are many fun things and many crazy things about this. Many of them I knew to expect: starting somewhere new is difficult, but it becomes fun when you start meeting wonderful people and making friends. Doing established techniques in a new place is always more, um, interesting than one expects, but when something (anything!) works, it’s a great feeling.

One of my favourite things has been buying shiny, brand new toys equipment. I have hugged the crate that held the microscope, squealed with excitement over pipettors, and jumped up and down when one piece of equipment I’d been wanting for years came in*. I have even cheered over a box of empty bottles arriving.

What I did not expect was that ordering all the things would be so hard. Not the actual placing of orders, our administrative support is excellent, and that part** is smooth. And it isn’t the big decisions that take the biggest toll. The big ticket items are more specialized, there’s usually something I want in one version versus another, it’s been budgeted for, and it’s more a matter of negotiating on price. What I did not expect was that it was the hundreds of tiny little decisions that you never see in a lab that is already up and running, that kicked my butt. What kind of pens should we order, how many boxes? How many beakers in various sizes? Do we order from VWR or Fisher? Is it worth spending $100 more on something and getting it now or wait a month and save the money?

Add to this decisions about hiring a technician, undergraduate RAs, teaching, how to arrange my office, how to organize my house, trying to decide what techniques to troubleshoot first, not to mention trying to think about science, the inevitable outcome was me bursting into tears when considering the question of whether I should order lab tape 1” or 1.5” in width.

It turns out that decision fatigue is a real thing, a kind of cognitive or mental exhaustion. The term coined by the psychologists Roy Baumeister and popularized by John Tierney, to describe why people make worse decisions as the number of decisions in say, a day, increases.

Or, in my case, refusal to make real decisions.  There was a lot of “I don’t need this now I’ll deal with it later”. Slides, for example. We still need to order slides.

This mental exhaustion was one part of how I felt about constant attention and decision making.The second part was anxiety: what happens if I make the wrong decision? What if I buy the wrong machine? Spend too much money? Buy the wrong part?
And what about renovations of the new lab? What if I fail to anticipate something that we really really need? What if we are unable to do an important technique next year (or in 5 years) because I make the wrong decision now?

These days, everything is easier, for a few key reasons

  1. There are fewer decisions to be made on a daily basis. We bought the pens, the lab is built, I’ve hired people, we have equipment and undergrads are troublshooting basic techniques. I still need to order those damn slides, but we have enough to get us through another month or so.
  2. Trust/delegation. I trust the technician. It took a little time (new people initially mean more attention), but now we both trust his judgement and he makes the call on gloves***, lab supplies et cetera, and will merely run his final numbers by me before submitting the order. No real decisions here!  Plus he can address many of the minute-by-minute details that new people need when following protocols.
  3. I’ve already made mistakes. Things were used anyway, returned, or given away. But I learned that I can make mistakes and the world doesn’t end****. Because of this, I’ve learned:
  4. To let go of the small things. Which to choose? THAT one. Why? It’s shiny. What color lab chairs? Red. Why? Because I like them. Also because the tech liked them.  At the end of the day these are not going to be the things that will matter in 10 years.
  5. Chocolate. No, really. Glucose apparently helps recovery from decision fatigue.

There are still days where I want to run out of the lab sobbing “I DON’T KNOOOOW!”, but now when it happens there are people around to ask “what do you think?”.

How to avoid the fatigue? I don’t know, and I can’t find anything other than “make fewer decisions” and that is not a real option.  So for those of you who have done/are doing this, how do you deal with the constant barrage of decisions? Do we just need to get through until there are fewer decisions to made? Or do you have strategies for minimizing the mental numbness of decision fatigue?

For those who will do this: be aware. And stock up on chocolate*****. Forewarned is forearmed, right?

* This probably caused my then brand new technician to wonder what kind of crazy woman he was working with, for the split second before he joined in.
** As long as we follow the rules for ordering and don’t ask for ridiculous things.
*** Except the ones in my size.
**** Who knew?!
***** Or your glucose source of choice.


25 thoughts on “The Decider

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I’m starting a TT in August (as in, about 3 weeks) and these things are heavy on my mind. My lab renovations have started, but I can’t officially start purchasing equipment until my appointment begins. I have my list all ready to go, and I’ve already spent some time checking VWR vs. Fisher pricing, but every time I think about actually having to press a submit button on my first order, I start to get anxious, for many of the reasons you state – what if I’m not placing this order correctly? What if the hour I spent pricing $1.50 weighing dishes wasn’t enough time to devote to this? You fool, you spent an ENTIRE HOUR pricing a $1.50 item?! And on and on. Good to know you stopped stressing the small stuff, and that it got better eventually! The very first thing I order will now be chocolate.

    • Congrats EB, and good luck! You’ll have a blast.
      Yes! Exactly that thought process! One other thing that I found useful – find a vendor you like and that is most helpful, then give them a list of stuff you need and get a quote on that. Even if it feels you end up spending a tiny bit more than with someone else (you probably aren’t), your time and energy is worth more than that.

      • Thank you!! This blog has arrived at such a fantastic time for me personally – you all are doing a great thing here! I suspect that if I get tenure, the community you will build through this might play a large role in keeping me sane and getting me to that point 🙂

        One other ordering tip that I’m glad I’ve heard early – plan for shipping costs! I will be ordering some large equipment, and I suspect that at the end of the day it will be thousands of dollars in shipping (a growth chamber I have a quote for, for example, is around $1,100 just in shipping!). Some of the companies, like VWR, offer “free shipping”, but only on orders less than $75, or there’s some other fine print. This could really screw up your budget, so it’s a good thing to be aware of if you’re new at this.

        • Sometimes shipping is negotiable – especially on large orders.
          (I basically try to negotiate on everything. I don’t always get discounts, but pretty often I do!)

  2. You already have the basic idea, which is to let go and delegate decisions to others as suitable. Obviously, the rubber hits the road when you decide what decisions are suitable to delegate.

    One thing I do is ask myself and the people seeking my decisionmaking input whether my input will provide substantial added value or not. I very frequently directly ask someone telling me things and then seeking decisionmaking input, “Do I really need to know this? Do you really need my input on this? If so, why?”

    This helps to preserve your decisionmaking energy for important strategic and tactical decisions–what lines of research to pursue, whom to hire, whom to collaborate with, what lines of research to terminate, how to structure manuscripts and grant applications, etc–instead of frittering it away on minutiae.

  3. Yes! The initial buying of consumables was the absolute worst. I had all these color-coded spreadsheets with VWR + Fisher + local distributor quotes and drove myself BATTY trying to figure out what to buy from where. One thing that I’ve also learned is that *everyone* makes bad decisions sometimes – you, the people you delegate – and the earth keeps on spinning. You’re pretty much guaranteed to waste at least a little time and money as you work out the kinks and learn from mistakes. But hey, it’s only time and money.

    • Or not even bad decisions, but a different decision to what you would make. That’s scary too. But I’m learning to let it go. Learning slowly.

  4. Yes! I found myself laughing aloud in sympathy and despair!

    One thing to note is that for some of the larger things, you may not have a choice on vendor. I would spend some time talking to other folks before you even start ordering and get a sense of people’s views on the different vendors and what obstacles might come up. And know your campus’s ordering and delivery guidelines!

    I just went through the process of figuring out my list of equipment, negotiating prices, choosing the vendor, etc. Because my order total was > $5K, campus purchasing needed to approve it, and they ended up sending it out to bid without talking to me. In the end (today, in fact), they chose a different vendor (again, without talking to me) so all of the little perks I negotiated, and the nice relationship I had established with the vendor I loved, were gone.

    In my case, I am at a uni. where the process is not at all smooth- there isn’t good admin support, lines of communication between different departments appear broken, and I’m also not on the main campus so even delivery is complicated. I’m actually looking forward to the consumables because they’ll just be processed internally and I can avoid central campus purchasing…and hopefully avoid most of the issues I’ve encountered recently.

    Oh well. I’m trying to take the “Don’t sweat the small stuff” advice to heart. I think I’m going to go scrub out my lab.

    • Oh no! Frustrating! I know how lucky I am with admin here, I had similar things to you happen in postdoc lab – but it’s different when it’s your own lab.
      Scrubbing out the lab counts as exercise (obviously), and I’m guessing exercise helps with decision fatigue too (it reportedly does help with other cognitive fatigue). And then chocolate and/or wine.

  5. Great post, so true! I’m in my 4th year and sometimes I still find myself tempted to sweat the small stuff, but then a little voice kicks in and helps me to realize it is not the end of the world if I make a mistake (and trust me there are brand new-never been used-opened the box and realized it was wrong mistakes I’ve made). Good thing you have a supportive administration and a technician so early in the game. I am still hoping/waiting for grant funding so I can get a tech myself!

    You mentioned working with undergraduate RAs. I’d love to see another post on this. I am at an exclusively undergraduate institution, so I feel like I am still trying to get a handle how to do this most effectively. (Another reason having a tech would be so great to be a second person students could go to when I’m in class/at a meeting/ otherwise unavailable).

  6. One thing I’ve learned the hard way (and +1 to all you’ve said!) is that starting a new lab, new projects, etc., ALWAYS takes way longer than I predict. I’m trying to now lean in and accept that.

  7. @psychgirl …. EVERYTHING takes way longer than i predict, whether it is something new or something routine!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I might learn that, but I don’t think I’ll ever accept it. d.

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  9. Looking back at the stuff I purchased >20 years ago, most of the decisions worked out well. The brand-X top-loading balance with the super-cheap technology served us perfectly until it was stolen last year. The Nalgene unwire racks are still going strong. When the waterbath temperature control finally failed the guy in the shop fitted one set to 55°C, perfect for agar and agarose; same for the speed controller on the roller wheel in the Fisher-brand incubator (also still going strong).

    I think the take-away message isn’t that I’m a purchasing genius at this but that common sense will serve you well. So relax; the purchases will probably work out fine.

    (It may also help to set yourself a mental budget for mistakes. Something like “If only 5% of my budget gets wasted on mistakes I’ll consider that I’ve done very well.”

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