How to Cope with Deadlines
Some of the world’s greatest and most famous writers have been terrible with deadlines.
We’ve already written about how Douglas Adams had to be locked up to make him finish his novels. The philosopher Alain de Botton has said that, “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” And the fantasy writer GRR Martin is so notoriously bad at producing books for the initial publication deadline that his readers have taken to pestering other popular fantasy writers about it (and received strongly-worded and unsympathetic replies).
So when you have that horrendous combination of a fast-approaching deadline and a blank page, you may wish to take comfort in the fact that you are in excellent company. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to impress the teacher who is supposed to be marking your work. Instead, here are our suggestions for how to cope with deadlines of every kind.
The typical example of a long-range deadline that you might encounter at school is a coursework deadline. You might figure out a rough title or area of study in October, but not be expected to hand anything in until February. The extreme of this is when you’re working towards a PhD, and your final deadline is a brain-melting three or more years away. If you do have any plans to continue in academia in the long term, mastery of the long-range deadline is essential.
Some ways of dealing with the long-range deadline are so obvious that we’re not going to go into them in detail here. In brief: break down the task into stages, figure out what dates you need to have each thing done by if you want to do it well, and keep to that timetable if it proves realistic when you get started. But of course, it’s never really as simple as that.
Procrastination is your biggest enemy in the long-range deadline. Some people – perhaps most people – need the press of urgency to push them into working, and when that isn’t there, the time will just slip by and the work will only get done once it really is urgent.
It might be that you have a 5,000 word coursework piece to write over three months. You don’t want to get started just yet, because some of what you’re still learning in class might prove relevant, and you don’t want to have to go back and rewrite. So three months becomes two months. That’s still plenty for writing and research. Then there are other deadlines, and a couple of friends’ birthdays in a row, and a trip away, and two months becomes one month. At this point, tidying your room and the duller parts of the internet become unfeasibly fascinating. One month becomes two weeks. At this point the urgency will either be enough for you – or you’ll already be quite familiar with the processes by which two weeks turns into the night before…
The key way of beating this is simply to get something written down as soon as you can. Yes, even in the first week of the three months, when you don’t know anything much about the topic and you’ll probably have to rewrite the whole lot anyway. It’s perfectly fine to write 10,000 words and delete 5,000 of them – in fact, it’s probably the preferable way of going about it.
Your own essay style will dictate what kind of something you want to get written down at this early stage. It could be a plan, or your own rambling notes, or even an attempt at some kind of proto-essay that you can tear apart and reconstruct as you get to know your topic better. But don’t let it turn into procrastination-work – the kind of work where you redraw mindmaps and timelines of things you know already, while all the time the blank page keeps staring at you blankly with all the force of its intense blankness. Whatever type of ‘getting something written’ you choose, it needs to result in the page not being blank any more.
The other technique is to reduce your deadline artificially. This doesn’t work for hardcore procrastinators because it’s too easy to remind yourself that the deadline is artificial, so it doesn’t induce the necessary sense of urgency. For others, setting yourself a deadline of a month or a fortnight ahead of the real deadline is always advisable, in case something goes wrong in that time or some part of the task took you longer than expected.
If you’re a dedicated procrastinator wanting to use this technique, you’re going to have to create urgency around the artificial deadline some other way. Do you have a particularly grumpy friend, relative or teacher who you could ask to read over the finished thing at that deadline? Could you put a donation in an envelope, to be sent to a cause you hate, if you haven’t met that deadline? It’s OK to use methods that are a bit weird (reset your phone’s date to two weeks ahead of when it actually is to spur yourself on? deny yourself any form of non-fruit sugar until the blank page is gone?) if they work for you.
One of the main reason that the long-term deadline induces procrastination so fiercely is that frequently, it offers more time to carry out the task than is necessarily required – so you already know you don’t need to start straight away to produce something good ahead of the deadline.
A medium deadline doesn’t offer this dangerous temptation, because the deadline is close enough to be in sight, rather than far away in the distance where it can be forgotten and the work seems like it can be postponed. Try to choose deadlines of this kind for yourself, when you can; they’re by far the easiest to meet, and most standard time management advice relates to medium deadlines.
The first tip for managing a medium deadline is to figure out how much time you need to spend on the task. A good medium deadline set by your school will be based on how much homework time you can be expected to spend on that subject, which will vary considerably depending on your age, school level and the number of subjects you are taking. Once you have figured out how much time that is, figure out where in your schedule it’s best placed – not only when you haven’t got anything in your diary, but also where last-minute commitments aren’t likely to appear and knock your plans out of balance.
In terms of getting down to work, some people find the following rule very useful: you set yourself an amount of work to do (whether that’s ‘one hour’ or ‘500 words’) and you don’t stop until it’s done. If you’re really in the mood to work, you can keep going – but keep track of the amount of ‘extra’ work you’re doing. You can take that amount off at a later date, but no more than that. This reasonably simple idea is the cure to “oh, I worked really hard on Saturday, I don’t need to do anything today. Or tomorrow. And I don’t really need to try too hard the day after, either” – a line of reasoning that sounds absurd written down, yet that we all fall prey to at some point.
Setting an artificial deadline is healthy even when your real deadline is good. However, in the long-term deadline example, you should treat your artificial deadline exactly like the real one, and aim to have a completely finished product by the time you reach it. In the medium/good deadline example, it’s fine to have something like a second draft – essentially finished, fit to be handed in, but benefiting from a little polish if you have time for it.
The most dreaded form of deadline. Of course, as we’ve covered above, the danger of all deadlines is that they can turn into too-short deadlines as a result of procrastination, distractions and bad planning. An Oxford graduate has laid out her tools for coping with all-nighters in this excellent article – so here, we’ll be looking at too-short deadlines that aren’t quite as horrendous as that, but where you still, categorically, cannot get the job done to the extent that you’d like in the time available.
The first option is to request an extension to the deadline. If the too-shortness of the deadline is because of constraints on your time (rather than the deadline being inherently unrealistic), then your teacher may be prepared to give you some flexibility, especially if you’ve met deadlines reliably in the past and your reason is a sound one.
If the deadline is inherently unrealistic or an extension isn’t a viable option, then you will have to use other techniques to get the task done on time. First of all, figure out how important it is that it gets done well, and how well you need to do it not to affect your future academic career. This is definitely not the time for perfectionism. Can you do an adequate job on this and then compensate by doing a good job on the next task? Is it better to do a mediocre job on the whole task, or to hand in only half of it, but done really well? A concrete example might be that you could write a 3-page English essay without quotes or references, or an essay that’s outstanding in terms of what’s there – but it’s only a page long. What’s preferable will depend on who’s going to be marking your work, so think in terms of their expectations of you.
There are other things you can put by the wayside in order to get the job done. For instance, is the task important enough to miss out on a couple of hours’ sleep? Will you need to work through mealtimes and graze on snacks to keep going? Can you ask people around you – friends, family – to help you out with other commitments, like chores, until this deadline has passed? These are techniques that you can use a handful of times, but if you’re having to use them for every deadline, it’s a sign that something’s gone wrong with your workload, and rearrangement of your plans in the long-term may be required. It may be that you’re trying to take on too much – or that one of your teachers is setting unreasonable targets, in which case hopefully you have a form tutor or guidance counsellor you can do to for assistance.
Other than that, there isn’t much you can do but work. If it’s a writing-based task, putting on a piece of music and writing from beginning to end, without stopping to correct typos or even make sure that what you’re saying makes sense, can be a good way to get a solid chunk of words down on the page (and the music drowns out your inner perfectionist, too). The 10-minute version of Bat Out of Hell is a good length and volume for this, with about the right sense of urgency, though it may not be suited to your musical tastes.
Whatever your length of deadline, remember that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – having something finished and ready to go, even if it’s not very good, is better than having a really excellent idea that you can’t quite put down on paper. Editing is easier than writing, and teachers are good at looking through the typos and fuzzy expression to see whether the core of what you’re saying shows your understanding or not. Yes, a really fine-tuned finished product would be ideal – but something is always better than nothing. So get going!
Do you have any tips for dealing with deadlines? Share them in the comments!