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I am Michelle Lin, ALiEM Editor in Chief: How I Work Smarter


In this inaugural post of the series “How I Work Smarter,” I wanted to share my thoughts and efforts towards working smarter and not always necessarily harder. I have been the Editor-in-Chief of ALIEM since 2009 where I first was only managing myself and now I working with an all-star team of very motivated and capable medical educators in EM. Three moving parts rapidly became thirty moving parts with thirty different deadlines. Here are my responses to the series questions.

  • Michelle Lin, MD
  • Location: San Francisco Bay Area, CA
  • Current job: Editor in Chief of ALiEM and UCSF-San Francisco General Hospital Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine
  • One word that best describes how you work: Creatively
  • Current mobile device: iPhone 5
  • Current computer: MacBook Air

What’s your office workspace setup like?

I am big fan of the second monitor set-up at home and at the hospital office. I pair it with a lightweight, portable laptop so that I can be portable, since I am often working in various coffee shops for inspiration. Ergonomically, this set-up works best for me with a separate keyboard and trackpad. I use the Apple brand ones, which connect via bluetooth (I have no financial disclosure).  I also have a USB Audio-Technica 2020 microphone to record podcasts (thanks EM:RAP!).

Office Setup

What’s your best time-saving tip in the office or home?

Think about how many times your write certain phrases or text over and over on different websites and email programs. I love text expanders. I use aText ($5) on my Mac, although I recently learned that you might be able to do this for free in the most recent Mac OS (System Preferences > Keyboard >Text). I have keystrokes for my various emails, work and non-work email signatures, phone numbers, and some stock phrases. For instance, typing “eee” inserts my work email automatically. These few saved seconds save lots of time in the long run.

What’s your best time-saving tip regarding email management?

I am an advocate of David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy and “Inbox Zero” philosophy by Merlin Mann, although I honestly haven’t been able to achieve it yet. Currently, I have 21 messages still in my inbox! Nonetheless, I have rigged my Gmail so that I can quickly sort my inbox immediately into actionable items of:

  • To Do Today
  • To Do Soon
  • Scheduled for Meeting
  • Awaiting Reply
  • Non-Urgent Tasks

I used this tutorial to create “multiple inboxes” through smart uses of labels. Plus it’s important to learn keyboard shortcuts in Gmail to quickly move messages around.

GmailInboxes Small2

What’s your best time-saving tip in the ED?

I created my Paucis Verbis cards to maintain a repository of topics that I commonly need to look up (e.g. vasopressor doses, PECARN for pediatric blunt head trauma) or commonly use to teach students/residents on shift. These on-demand resources save me tons of time.

ED charting: Macros or no macros?

I think I am in the minority when it comes to using macros. I find that they are high-risk for documentation error, depending on what macros you create. The few macros that I do use are:

  1. ED Boarding Patients: I state that I am only watching over a patient who has already been admitted to an inpatient service and await a bed.
  2. Negative FAST (and E-FAST) ultrasound
  3. Negative gallbladder ultrasound
  4. Negative renal ultrasound
  5. Negative DVT ultrasound

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about work, life, or being efficient?

Before taking on a new project, think about whether it is aligned with your long-term professional goals. If so, commit to a finite amount of time whereupon then you can re-new your commitment, if time allows. When I first started out as an attending, I volunteered to help and lead projects, which had no end in sight with annual recurring responsibilities. People were surprised when I wanted to transition to other projects.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers?

I am a visual brainstormer. When planning out projects and organizing my thoughts, I like to draw. I find that analog tools foster creativity. So one of my favorite purchases is a large whiteboard for my home office. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on a fancy, large whiteboard, I bought two white showerboard panels (can get from Home Depot or Lowe’s), which are made of melamine. It’s a little bit harder to erase the pen marks, but you can’t beat $15 (instead of $150-250). Read more in this Primer Magazine post.

Whiteboard PIVOT

Who would you love for us to track down to answer these same questions?

  1. Salim Rezaie
  2. Esther Choo
  3. Victoria Brazil
  4. Damian Roland
Michelle Lin, MD
ALiEM Editor-in-Chief
Academy Endowed Chair of EM Education
Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine
University of California, San Francisco
Michelle Lin, MD
Michelle Lin, MD

Latest posts by Michelle Lin, MD (see all)

  • Sue Kim

    Thanks for sharing how you get all the things done! Your time management skills are a sight to behold. I’d also be interested to hear how you: 1) tackle not-so-fun projects; and 2) get unstuck / break through plateaus.

    • Michelle Lin

      Oh, I’m still at the apprentice-stage on tackling not-so-fun projects. I read somewhere that to get unstuck, ask yourself – what impact will this have once you are done? Often the end-goal is awesome. Keep that in mind. Plus I heard of a stopwatch trick. For unpleasant tasks, set a timer and only promise to yourself that you’ll do 10, 30, or 60 minutes of work. Then you WILL stop. Makes the task more palatable.

      As for getting unstuck, first, just take a break from it. Fresh eyes do wonders. Then if that doesn’t work, do a gut check – is this really what you want to do? If so, then set mini-deadlines. In some cases, I bring on more collaborators. Nothing like peer pressure with deadlines.

  • Hi Michelle! I love this series! And you have very impressive awesome ideas for hacking life!

    For the DIY white board idea, I have also seen people buy a glass frame from Ikea and then insert a light coloured (or just white) paper. Dry erase works really well on glass. 😀

    • Michelle Lin

      Yup, I’ve always wanted one of those, but afraid of breaking them. Waiting for the perfect magnetic whiteboard paint to paint walls with. Problem is that they’re not getting good reviews (e.g. hard to erase markers).

  • I love the concept of finite time commitments, make sense to optimize exploration and find people who work best with you. Your post reminded me of a great post by Salim Rezzaie last year on 10 tips for success for junior faculty in academic medicine:

    I want to see this series with:
    Tracy Sanson and Ernie Wang


    • Michelle Lin

      Good people to get suggestions from. Hmm, will have to start drawing up a queue. Lots of people with great ideas.

  • Your inbox hierarchical organization is pretty life-changing. I can’t wait to put it to use!

    • Michelle Lin

      It’s pretty awesome. Loving it.

  • Todd Raine


    Do you still use IQTell, or just gmail?

    • Michelle Lin

      Back to gmail! IQTell had some challenges, specifically about customizing which email account you were sending messages out from. I think they were moving that way but I was too impatient to wait.

      • Hi Michelle, just as fyi, we did add email alias support, so you can decide which email to send from 😉

        • Michelle Lin

          Wow, thanks for following this thread and commenting. Keep up the great work!

  • Eve

    Dr. Lin,

    Thanks so much for giving us insight into your world! Took a couple of hours this afternoon to set up my email so that I might be able to work a bit smarter! I appreciate the tips!


  • Kim

    Quick question: how do you approach medical journals? What do you use to read and annotate them? thanks!

    • Great Q. I don’t actually annotate PDFs. I just download and keep in dropbox folders labelled by Lastname_Brief Title-Journal/Yr.pdf. Good luck!


      • Have you ever used Google Docs for collaborative editing of documents? It would be fantastic if journal articles could be converted to a Google Docs type format that would allow for various people to comment and discuss the article. I’ve been doing this at my program for some articles but it’s laborious to manually convert the article. It’s great in that it allows for an asynchronous online journal discussion.

        Inkling is another service that allows annotation and discussion for digital books. Maybe that could be another platform in which journal’s could be released for more better collaborative potential?

        • Yup, have tried collaborative editing on Google Docs when writing joint manuscripts. Recently they are allowing tracked changes, but still quite burdensome and hard to read after a while when you see more new text than the original text! It takes some time to figure out the working dynamic.

          Tried Inkling as well, but I got frustrated with the user interface. Was a bit of a learning curve. In the end for joint writing of manuscripts, our team has generally settled on MS Word and Dropbox with version #s after the file name with a general order of who is “checking out” the document to work on. Google Docs, however, does have a place when you are doing initial brainstorming in real-time.