Deadlines. Even the word can send a chill down your spine, and they’re not just for journalists and other writers. A deadline is just a due date, and we all have them. School assignments, reports and presentations at work, projects, tasks, and various other jobs that pop up in life. Everything is due sometime.
We believe we hate deadlines. They mock us, looming on the calendar (you do use a calendar or other schedule, right?) and laughing at us. Try as you might, you can’t get away from them without suffering some consequences.
But that, it turns out, is a good thing. Most of us need deadlines. Nolan Bushnell (founder of both Atari and the Chuck E. Cheese chain of restaurants...how’s that for a resume?!) called them the “ultimate inspiration”. Many people claim they’d get nothing done without them.
But the best quote about deadlines has to be these words of wisdom from writer Douglas Adams:
“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
Truer words have never been spoken. We may think about many things when we have a deadline, but few of them help us actually get the work done.
See Also: How to Manage a Missed Deadline
1. Why did I accept this deadline?
You might have a deadline thrust upon you, or you might be able to suggest or create one yourself. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It’s your butt on the line. You have to get the work done - whatever it is - by that date. At some point, you will question it. You will ask yourself why in the name of all that is good and holy did you agree to that crazy deadline. And “crazy” can mean anything...if you have four weeks to get it done, you’ll probably waste 3.87 of them. You’ll cry, pull out your hair, punch a few walls, and curl up on the floor. But it changes nothing. The deadline cometh for you.
2. Why did I wait so long to start on this?
Once you accept the deadline, you’ll get angry with yourself. It’s a fact of life that most of us procrastinate. 26% of Americans admit to it (and the rest didn’t get around to answering the question). It’s a human phenomenon. But no matter how many times we do it (and we do it a lot), we never learn our lesson. What’s that expression about doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result?
Oh yeah. It’s the definition of insane. When we have a deadline, we find a myriad of excuses to put it off.
- I have lots of time. I’ll start tomorrow/next week/next month.
- I’m just going to bake some cookies first.
- I should really sort through my yarn collection.
After we do literally everything else we can think of, the deadline is still there...only it’s now much closer.
3. How little sleep can I survive on?
It’s crunch time. You’ve questioned your reasons for agreeing to this task in the first place, and you’ve reprimanded yourself for putting it off. Great. Doesn’t actually help you, of course, but good for you for tackling the big issues and asking the difficult questions. Now, you have to start bargaining and prioritising. The deadline is coming up fast, and you have 2 weeks of work to do in 4 days. What’s the first thing to go?
Sleep. You need it. You love it. You’ll die without it (lab rats denied sleep entirely died in 11-32 days). But it’s frequently considered a “luxury”. The deadline demands its tribute, and it’s a good night’s sleep in this case. Surviving on little or no sleep is a bad idea, but it’s one we all turn to at times.
4. How can I break this down?
Okay. You’ve decided to put off sleeping until this sucker is done. Now, you need to take a close look at exactly what needs to be completed. Microscopic close. Psychologically, we baulk at big tasks. They’re overwhelming and scary. It’s part of why we procrastinate in the first place. So you need to break the task into smaller, manageable chunks. And you need to set sub-deadlines for each piece. Be realistic.
5. I wonder what’s on television right now
Uh-oh. Speed bump. You’ve slapped yourself awake, brewed a huge pot of coffee, broken everything down into tiny pieces, and are ready to put your nose to the grindstone. And then...you start to think of ways to put it off again.
You think about television. Or Netflix. Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram. You remember that book you’ve been meaning to read. Basically, anything to distract you from what you absolutely must do: the thing with the deadline. Resist!
6. Who can I ask for help?
Most of us don’t like asking for help (consider virtually any man when he’s lost and refuses to ask for directions if you need proof). Too many of us see it as a sign of weakness or incompetence. It’s not, but fine. Go with that.
If you had started this when it was first assigned to you, then you would’ve had enough time to do everything yourself. Now? You don’t. You may need to turn to friends, colleagues, and family for assistance if possible. Ask, and ye shall (probably) receive.
7. What am I doing with my life?
Maybe you found someone to help; maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’re finally chipping away at the task. Maybe you haven’t slept in two and a half days and are now having hallucinations. Is that a dragon sitting on the ceiling and knitting? It’s probably not real. Regardless, it’s at this stage that you start to question every choice you’ve made in your life. Every decision that led to you sitting at your desk at 2:27am. Where did it all go wrong? What is wrong with me? Why do I do this every damn time?
8. I am the worst writer/employee in the history of the world
You start to question, and then you start to answer. And because of all the time you’ve wasted, those answers will undoubtedly be rather negative. Self-doubt will rear its ugly head. You’ll be your own worst enemy, and the voice in your head will become a bully the likes of which you’ve never experienced. There will be name-calling. There will be belittling, and ridiculing, and taunting. But you have to tune it all out and get back to work.
9. What will happen if I ask for an extension?
At some point, probably the day before everything is due, you’ll go for the Hail Mary pass: the extension. What’s the worst that could happen? You explain to your boss/editor that it’s just not possible to finish by the original deadline. You’ll prepare a few excuses as to why in case it comes up (but you’ll hope that it doesn’t). And you’ll breathe easier...for about five minutes.
The extension is not ideal, and you know it. It’s admitting failure. If something legitimate happens (death or emergency in the family, for example), that’s different. But that’s not what happened this time. The Walking Dead happened. Or re-reading the Harry Potter series happened. Or paintball.
You’ll consider the extension card, but you’ll decide against it.
10. I can do this
And now, finally, you’ve exhausted all other options, and a certain calmness settles in. You can do this. It’s not going to be fun. It is going to suck. But it’s only for a few days, and you can survive anything for just a few days, right?
You’ll buckle down, get it done, and hand it in on time. You’ll feel like a superhero. And you’ll swear to yourself that you will never, ever let this happen again. Yeah...right.
Deadlines suck, but they’re useful. The accountability and fear they create motivates us in a way that we can’t always do ourselves. They’re a necessary evil. But you have to try harder and respect them to use them the right way. One study in The Journal of Consumer Research suggests changing the way you think about time. It claims that most people think about it as either “present” or “future”, and if a deadline falls into your definition of “future”, you’re more likely to put it off. Reframe your thinking and make all deadlines “present”.
Or don’t. Maybe just consider it tomorrow. Or the day after. There’s lots of time.
What goes through your head when you have a deadline? How do you get it all done? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.