Why targets and deadlines don’t always work

The ultimate aim of research is to go beyond what is already known.

This is one reasons why it is so attractive; there’s a kind of romantic image of the pioneer at the frontier of human knowledge, that your work will contribute something which will ultimately change the world.

But there is a counter-side to it, and that is that because you are going beyond what is already known, you cannot know the outcome. If you know the outcome with certainty, then it is not research, or certainly not interesting research.

So while you need some kind of plan, and targets and deadlines can help to focus your attention, it is almost inevitable that there will be times when things don’t go to plan, and that’s when you need a different approach.

Why targets and deadlines don’t always work

There will always be things you cannot predict. For example, you may be running an experiment and the equipment breaks down. It’s outside your control no matter how well you planned.

Or it may not work because;

  • you didn’t know the process or how much work was involved, so your deadline was unrealistic
  • you make a mistake (or someone else does)
  • you expect someone to deliver something within a set time
  • your methodology was flawed
  • you made a flawed assumption
  • what you are trying to do is impossible…

The universe does not care about your plan, and there will always be factors outside your control

The danger of focusing on the outcome

Having a target and deadline means that you are focused on a specific outcome you cannot always control.

The ultimate aim is to finish your thesis. So it’s easy to imagine if you fail at a target, that translates into failure at the PhD as a whole. And because you will fail many, many times, each time can reinforce the feeling that you will fail the whole thing and that the world is against you and there is nothing you can do.

What to do when things go wrong

When things go wrong, don’t simply set a new deadline. You need to engage your problem-solving brain, and this means taking some time to focus on the point of failure.

Try letting go of the target and deadline, relax, and invest yourself fully in solving the problem.

Only when you find a solution should you reengage with the target and deadline.

The secret to success

The secret to success is not how clever you are or how many hours you work or how organised you are, it is how you respond when things go wrong.

Failure (at a small scale) is inevitable and a necessary part of the research process, because you are doing things which haven’t been done before using techniques you are learning as you go. So if it’s inevitable, don’t worry about it!

All you can do is invest yourself fully, to do things to the best of your ability, whether you know if it will work or not. And if at first you don’t succeed, find another way.

This blog post is an excerpt from the video “102: The Nature of PhD Research”, available now as part of the Painless PhD video course

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  1. Coral says

    Thanks for these inspirational words – after the xmas holiday break i have been struggling with getting back into it. According to my timelines I set for myself I was supposed to have completed my field research in December, it’s January and I haven’t even started! It can be quite demoralising but after reading this article I feel remotivated and realise its a normal part of the process. it’s not about meeting deadlines on time but about overcoming obstacles and getting past them. Thanks!

  2. Ellen Spaeth says

    I find it really hard to assess how much time a task will take. Combine that with the self-imposed deadlines that come with a PhD, and you get deadlines that seem to be wild guesses.

    Recently I’ve been trying to work on small tasks rather than big deadlines – it’s a luxury to be able to do that as I have no external deadlines at the moment. Once I’m getting a more consistent idea how long it usually takes me to do different types of task, I’m going to integrate it with a more long term view.

    However, as you say, unforeseen things come up, and it’s important not to view that as a failure. One idea I’m using with my small tasks is to have a “contingency plan” so that if something crops up, I can do a lesser version of the task and still feel like I’m progressing. It doesn’t work all the time, sometimes you’re ill, or you have to go to meetings, or you just need some down time. But I think it’s helping me so far.

    I’m blogging about this, if anyone is interested :)


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