This seemed like a good time of year to talk to you about setting deadlines and scheduling. I have heard from several people who are in a state of real panic because of the sudden onslaught of classes and responsibilities. This panic and overwhelm develops because at some unconscious level you realize that you’re dropping the ball on long-term deadlines, as you juggle all your other urgent and necessary daily tasks. In order to avoid the sharp, painful feeling of anxiety that thinking about these deadlines would bring, you bury such thoughts even deeper into your unconscious. But ironically, you will feel less overwhelmed if you become clearer about what you must do, and then chip away at it on a daily basis.
These long-term deadlines, although they represent the career-make-or-break part of your life, are too far off to motivate and organize you into immediate action. So I created a six-step process for creating mini-deadlines. This process also helps you visualize the big picture of what lies ahead, so don’t skip the first steps.
- Look over the whole academic year (download and print out this calendar if you don’t have a year calendar handy). Identify all hard deadlines (e.g. chapters or papers due, conference presentations) and circle them. If you don’t have hard deadlines, assign them to yourself, being kind and reasonable. Don’t try for the impossible; it will just demoralize you later when you don’t come close to achieving it.
- If you haven’t already done so, enter these deadlines in your personal monthly calendar (download and print these monthly calendars if you don’t have a monthly calendar).
- Now begin reverse scheduling: Decide what the last step will be before accomplishing the final step of each deadline. Then decide the step preceeding that. For example, Jerome wrote:
- Chapter due — March 2
- Receive comments from second reader and begin revising based on comments – Feb. 25
- Give chapter to second reader – Feb. 10
- Receive comments from first reader and begin revising – Feb. 1
- Give chapter to first reader — Jan. 18
- Finish third and final part of first draft of chapter and begin revising – Dec. 20 (allow time off for holidays)
- Finish second part of first draft — Nov. 20
- Finish 1st part of first draft – Oct. 20
- Write all of these mini-deadlines into your daytimer/calendar or the monthly calendar you downloaded. This will give you a clear picture of the overall task ahead, and how much priority you need to give to scheduling on a week-by-week basis. If you want to go crazy like I did, you can download these weekly schedules (Oct-Dec and Jan-Mar) that I created for you, showing the weeks three months at a time. If you want to create your own, go to pdfcalendar.com.
- Now look at the last item you wrote down when you reverse scheduled. This will be your next mini-deadline. What do you need to accomplish in the coming week in order to make this deadline? For example, Jerome said to himself, “I have 20 days to write a ‘messy first draft’ of the first third of the chapter. I’m going to work on this for one 30-minute writing session, plus one extra 15-minute session, each day. So here is what I will do this week.” Then in his daytimer/calendar he wrote in each week day:
- Monday – read over my notes on the articles and note the main points.
- Tuesday – continue reading notes and free writing comments on readings.
- Wednesday – free write about what I want to say in this part of the chapter
- Thursday — continue free writing
- Friday – start editing free writing
- If you have trouble figuring out how and when to schedule the tasks that you’ve laid out for the week, download a one-week “Unschedule” from this link. Follow the steps that I outlined in my article “Is Time Your Enemy? Conquer Time with an ‘Unschedule!”
A Final Note on Deadlines
Deadlines orient you towards what you need to do and when, so you don’t procrastinate or live in a world of denial. On the other hand, the deadlines that you set up for yourself are based on estimates. DO NOT USE THEM TO BEAT YOURSELF UP! Self-flagellation about not meeting such deadlines will demoralize you and sabotage your progress. Be flexible and note how you are doing in regard to your deadlines. Re-evaluate periodically and adjust your schedule accordingly. If you’ve set the deadlines realistically, you won’t be too far off, and you will get better at setting them the more you observe your habits and adjust.