University of Wisconsin–Madison

Productivity in STEM: 6 tips and 3 little things to be more productive

As a STEM professional, you know productivity in STEM is extremely important. On any given day you are juggling many drug projects and tasks. Distractions like emails, meetings, and phone calls, make it difficult to stay on task. Our colleagues at Engineering Professional Development (EPD) discussed productivity with several STEM professionals in the Madison area. The video series “Productivity in STEM” is a result of that project. You can watch their entire series on productivity on YouTube.

If you don’t have time to watch the series we have compiled the 6 Tips and 3 Little Things that can help you accomplish productivity in STEM.  We hope you find them useful in increasing productivity in your workplace.

6 Tips to Accomplish Productivity in STEM

Get organized 

Organization is key. Most professionals emphasize the importance of organization in staying productive.

Make sure your workspace is organized functionally. It should meet your needs and make it easy for you to find and do things. Take time regularly to declutter and clean up your workspace. Create a filing system that works for you and organize your work accordingly. Ensure that pens, notepads, and accessories you need are visible and within reach. Taking a few extra seconds to ensure everything is in place right away is important. It can help save several productivity minutes in the long run. If you find your workspace getting cluttered, make time to reorganize it.

Like your workspace, your daily routine should be organized and functional. Create a routine that works for you and stick to it. Schedule all your tasks and chores into a regular routine. An organized routine will keep you productive at work and beyond.

Master task managementInfographic on 6 Tips for Productivity

Poor task management can make people fall behind schedule despite best efforts. Developing practical task management skills will help you see significant improvements in productivity.

Start by creating to-do lists. Whether you work digitally or use paper, the to-do list is the most fundamental step for good task management. At the end of each workday make a list of do you want to complete the next day. Start your workday by organizing your to-do list in order of priority and difficulty.

Work through your list one task at a time. Many people make the mistake of multitasking or switching frequently between tasks. Most productive people work one task at a time and avoid starting too many new projects at a time.

Start off with a few easy tasks that can be quickly completed. Checking off tasks on the to-do list early in the day will give you the motivation to keep going. Schedule a large chunk of time on your calendar for lengthy or difficult tasks. This helps dedicate the time you need to complete tasks and prevent external distractions.

If a task is very complex or daunting, consider breaking it down into smaller subtasks and milestones. Being stuck doing a task forever can be exhausting and demoralizing. But checking off small milestones in a larger project can be motivating. You will find yourself completing complex and difficult tasks easily by breaking them down.

Once you start creating and working through to-do lists you will find yourself getting better at task management. You will get better at prioritizing your tasks and organizing your schedule to complete them.

Say No and Delegate

Distractions are the number one hurdle to productivity. Do you find yourself with more projects at the end of the day than you started with? Do you ever find yourself feeling unproductive despite working diligently all day? Chances are that you are getting distracted and taking on more than you can handle.

Saying “No” is a critical skill that will reduce distractions and improve productivity. If you get interrupted during a task, politely redirect the interrupter. Let them know that you are in the middle of something important and will connect with them as soon as you can.

Be aware of your abilities and limitations. Know how many tasks you can manage without letting the quality suffer. If you think you are being assigned more tasks than you can handle, speak up and request that the tasks be assigned to someone else.

Task delegation will also help you manage tasks. Sometimes another colleague may be better at the task than you are. Do not be afraid to delegate tasks to the best person for completing them. Some tasks are better suited for small groups and teams instead of an individual. Do not hesitate to ask for help and put together a task team to get it done. The most successful and productive workers know how to delegate and collaborate.

Get plenty of sleep

Sleep is an often ignored factor in productivity. Today we have more information on the effects of sleep on health and productivity. We should now give sleep the attention it deserves. Both the quality and quantity of sleep are important. You must get the right amount of restful sleep to be productive.

If you wake up feeling tired, you are probably not sleeping long enough or well enough. Try going to bed at an earlier time. Minimize distractions at night so you can go to sleep on time. Electronic gadgets stimulate the brain and reduce production of melatonin. Avoid checking your phone or emails right before bed. For optimum sleep turn off all gadgets and devices at least an hour before bedtime, and read a book instead.

Create a consistent sleep schedule and stick to it. Significant variations in the time you go to bed or wake up can negatively impact sleep quality. Try to develop a bedtime routine so you can go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Stick to the same sleep schedules during the weekend as well. Your work week routines will be easier if you do not break from it over the weekend.

Cat naps are a great complement to a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that naps around 10 to 20 minutes long boost productivity. (CAUTION: Naps longer than 30 minutes can be detrimental to sleep) They help the body refresh and reset during the workday. That is why many companies like Google are providing couches or nap areas as an employee benefit. If you work at home or have access to the couch you can schedule a small nap break. If you are unable to take a nap or prefer not to you can schedule a few minutes of meditation and mindfulness instead.

Focus on Wellness

Your health and wellness is an important factor in your productivity. Too often people compromise on wellness to be productive. While this can offer short-term gains, poor health can decline productivity in the long term.

Make sure you are eating well and receiving proper nutrition. A good breakfast can help you start the day on the right note. Light and nutritious snacks can help you power through the afternoon slump. Avoiding caffeine and heavy snacks in the evening will ensure you sleep well. Everyone is different, so observe and modify your eating habits for your optimal productivity.

Workplace wellness activities are critical. If you are at a desk all day, schedule breaks to get up and move. Several studies have shown that sitting or standing for extended periods of time is detrimental to health. It can also reduce alertness and induce lethargy. Make sure to stretch and walk as often as possible. Lunchtime walks or short afternoon walks can also prevent the afternoon slump.

Relax by practicing mindfulness. If you have a high-stress job or have a lot of tight deadlines coming up, meditation can help you tackle your obstacles. Set aside a few minutes each day to meditate. Learn to focus on your breathing and take deep breaths every time you feel stressed. You will feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle your projects.

Use Tools and Technology

There are plenty of tools and technologies designed to help people stay organized and productive. Take advantage of them.

A paper calendar is one of the oldest and simplest tools to be productivity tools. Calendars are a great resource to plan your schedule and routine. Physical paper calendars also serve as a great means to reset at the end or beginning of each workday.

Whiteboards are ideal to jot down notes and ideas. If you have any questions come up while you are working, note them on the whiteboard to tackle later. You can use the whiteboard to set visible reminders for important tasks and activities. The whiteboard is also a great parking lot for ideas that you can flesh out further later.

Modern technology can also help optimize workflows to be more productive. Do you work with teams spread out in the office or in multiple locations? There are several free and paid tools designed to help teams collaborate including Slack, Yammer, Trello, Basecamp, Evernote and many more. Meeting and screen sharing tools like Skype, GoToMeeting, Zoom, TeamViewer can save time by reducing eliminating travel time to meetings.

If you are a freelancer or work from home, cloud-based applications allow people to work and collaborate on the go. Microsoft and Google both provide complete cloud-based office software. Most modern CRM, Sales and Project management tools are cloud-based as well. There are also plenty of file sharing resources like Box, DropBox, and Google Drive that help remote workers connect and collaborate with global teams.

3 Little Things that Can Help

3 Little Things that can help productivity

There are several small details in your daily work routine that can help you become more productive and here we offer three of them.


Does your brain function change depending on the time of the day? Does your energy level change from morning to afternoon? Adjust your workload to account for these variances. Schedule the difficult or detail-oriented tasks for when you feel refreshed and focused. Keep the easy and movement-oriented tasks for when you are less alert. Incorporate breaks to walk about and move to help reset your mind.


Does color impact how you feel? Psychology has shown that colors can affect how you feel and even influence your productivity. Everyone is different. Which color makes you feel energized and ready to work? You should paint your workspaces with this color. If painting your workspace is not feasible, you can add pictures, accents, and accessories in your productivity color. Similarly, you should paint your bedroom in colors that soothe and relax you.


Do you get distracted easily? Do you feel compelled to join in on interesting conversations around you? Listening to music can help you focus. Your favorite music will not only put you in a good mood, but it will also drown out distractions that prevent you from focusing. Create a productivity playlist for work. If music is distracting you can still use noise-canceling headphones to minimize distractions.

We hope these tips and little things help you manage your workload so you can enjoy productive and stress-free workdays. The Professional Development Curriculum at UW-Madison is developed with an emphasis on productivity. Our Applied Drug Development Certificate provides you with toolkits to optimize your drug development process. The Lean Operations Management Certificate and the Maintenance Management Certificate from our colleagues at EPD will help you improve your pharmaceutical manufacturing processes and implement continuous manufacturing processes. If you are looking to enhance productivity in your business processes, the Center for Professional & Executive Development offers certificates in Project Management and Lean Six Sigma