Deadlines schmeadlines

Photo by Levi Saunders |
Photo by Levi Saunders |

[An earlier version of this post appeared on the RED Writing Blog.]

My greatest achievements in academia are produced by my fear of shame and humiliation.

I said this to a colleague recently, and we had a good laugh.

The moment has stayed with me, though, because it’s kind of true.

Our lives are filled with commitments, and we carve our days into brightly coloured slices with the aim of fitting everything in.

The fact that we live lives where we need to ensure we ‘fit in’ relaxing and spending time with friends and family disturbs me on a level that this post isn’t up to articulating.

Instead, I want to talk about deadlines.

Everyone has them. Very few like them. Deadlines set for me by others tend to be much more effective, usually, but I still find myself standing at the edge of the abyss. You can ask for extensions from others, or allow yourself to extend a deadline, but nothing good really comes of doing that.

I was really proud of myself for many years for not being ‘that academic’. You know the one. That academic who was always missing deadlines, had no idea about closing dates or final submissions, and always demanding more time. If anything, I’d plan things to within an inch of their life and hand things over early: conference abstracts, article drafts, grant applications, my doctoral thesis…

That was while I was an ECR and doctoral student. Then I acquired bad habits, ending up in spirals of frenzied, panicky activity that I feared would produce rubbish.

I’m highly motivated if there’s a danger that I might let others down. I had to withdraw from a couple of academic publications when I was negotiating one of my career swerves (from an academic to a professional role), and it’s something I still remember with an awful sinking feeling, more than three years later.

When you are coming to the pointy end of a deadline, that promise of an article, application draft, or review submission (made oh-so-long ago) can hang odiously around your neck. So, why do I indulge in this repeated procrastinating behaviour that I know is bad for me?

I’ve become a serial offender when it comes to leaving some things to the last minute; it’s a habit I honed throughout my various degrees. Weirdly enough, most things are fine and do not get ‘procrastinated’; but there are regular small clusters of things that seem to always be bumped down the priority list. At a guess, I’d say they’re the things I’m feeling most insecure about, or uninterested in.

As is often the way, the problem lies not in failing others, but in doing perfectly well in the end and delivering something that’s halfway decent. That’s the issue. This simple handout about procrastination is excellent for sketching out why we procrastinate and what can be done about it.

For me, one of the most successful ways of trumping procrastinating behaviours is by making myself accountable. As Pat Thomson (@thomsonpat) says in her post “You can’t always write what you want“:

The question of wanting to write can get in the way of starting to write, but only if you let it. Sometimes, as in the case of bureaucratic writing and writing for other people, it’s the sense of responsibility that gets it going and done. [emphasis added]

Increasingly, I’ve made my progress on projects and thinking about my research more transparent. This is a huge step for me.

As a humanities scholar, one of those supposedly passe ‘lone wolves’ of the academic system, I wasn’t used to sharing information about my work-in-progress on a regular basis. Sure, when I was a research fellow, I had to fill in progress reports and end-of-year justifications about why I took up space in the university, but sharing that stuff as part of regular collegial conversations? Nah!

Having been listed on last year’s #acwrimo (Academic Writing Month) spreadsheet at my uni, and managing the month-long event for my unit, I experienced first-hand how effective and benevolent this kind of accountability can be. I was challenging myself to get the writing done for the month, and others were there right beside me with their own progress, setbacks, and strategies. It was surprisingly energising. It felt like you were being given a constructive push towards getting things done because you were part of the group’s momentum.

Compare this with the purely shame-driven spiral of panic I mentioned earlier, and I think we know which is healthier for mind, body, and output.

So, the number one strategy for meeting deadlines that worked for me is making myself accountable. Other factors that come into making things happen on time: analysing why I might be avoiding the work (and sussing out how to get over that), breaking things down into smaller chunks and being able to see it getting finished, and having a clear idea of what my priorities are for that work.

It’s all too easy to de-prioritise writing or reading commitments in a given week. Having paid much closer attention to my habits during #acwrimo last year, I know exactly where changes in my habits will benefit me most.

Now, I just need to implement those changes.

Maybe I’ll set myself a deadline.

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