No deadline more than a week away really works

DSC01070 IMG_4346In our trimesterly meetings with grad students and postdocs we have been discussing the importance of personal deadlines along with larger goals. One person said she liked deadlines, and would appreciate it if we set them together and then reminded her of them. Another person had three major deadlines, all for December.

It made me think of all the deadlines I’ve completely failed at in my career, though I like to think I am not particularly a procrastinator.

Maybe the problem is how we see time. To the children in these photos, from a local meeting, and a local park, an hour may seem like a long time, forever if your mom is talking to someone and not taking you away from this boring place. But aren’t we adults better at the future? I suppose, but then why do we ever run out of carrots and flour?

My latest thought is that if it is not something I have to do in a week, I won’t possibly be able to find time for it. What does that mean for getting things done, then? First, break up tasks into smaller pieces, each with their own deadline. For the student with three deadlines in December, we encouraged her to think about only working on two things at a time, one main one, and another to turn to when sick of the first. Then dividing up the deadlines.

Another student who often works elsewhere has a weekly meeting and deadline. It is a complex project, so saying be done with this huge thing by 20 October would be unrealistic.

How you manage to get things done will determine in large part your success in your career. I recommend that big tasks be broken into smaller ones, with deadlines. I think no deadline should occur right before or after a major holiday or break. Either way, it could ruin much needed time off.

And above all, remember most projects don’t get worked on until the week before or at most two before the deadline, so make the pieces small. Make them feel both urgent and achievable. I’m all set to revisit my list and some nagging projects I have delayed on for years.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Managing an academic career, Organization of a scientist and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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