How to meet deadlines

When under pressure, setting out a timeline with deadlines can give you a temporary feeling of control, but if you fail to meet the deadlines you set it can make you even more stressed.

One of the problems with self-imposed deadlines is that they don’t come with consequences. Other than feeling guilty, nothing immediately bad is going to happen if you miss an arbitrary date. But if it keeps happening again and again and again then the guilt and the stress builds and builds and builds, potentially affecting your ability to do the work.

There are ways to create artificial consequences, but I think this misses the point.

The key difference between hard and soft deadlines is that hard deadlines force you to be decisive. When there isn’t time to consider lots of alternatives you have to commit to a single course of action, with the choice you make often being determined by the time available.

If you want to meet a self-imposed deadline, then you have to use it as a basis for making decisions. Often, we aren’t aware of the decisions we’re making and the reasons behind them, so sometimes it’s good to pause and think about what you’re doing.

Let’s say, for example, that you allow yourself two weeks to write a literature review. First, you’re going to have to put in some serious effort—so deciding to close Facebook, deciding not to watch that interesting documentary on Netflix. It’s easy to justify putting off the work, deferring it to your future self (“I’ll get up at 5am tomorrow and get 3 hours work done before breakfast”), but recognise this for the avoidance it is, and let the deadline make the decision.

Next, what do you do with the time and effort? You could, easily, spend all of that time reading through a stack of new papers. This is easy to justify if you’re worried you might miss an undefined something you imagine the examiner might want to see, but if you do this then you’ve missed the deadline before you’ve even started. But if you use the deadline as a basis for making decisions, then it’s obvious that you have to limit the amount of new reading you do, and limit the scope of the review to focus primarily on the areas you already know. This means excluding things—deciding what not to do—which is really the only way to gain clarity of purpose and get the work done.

Of course, using deadlines as a basis for decisions isn’t a guarantee of success, but I do think it is a prerequisite and far better than leaving things to chance.

By JuergenG, modified by Rainer Z - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By JuergenG, modified by Rainer ZOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,