The Sound of Deadlines Rushing Past: Surviving in a world where deadlines are constant and there’s never enough time

I was fairly unwell before Christmas and was off sick and then struggling for a while. This was particularly traumatic as there were all the inevitable end of year deadlines that just wouldn’t stop coming, and frankly, I was in no position to be able to meet them. The thing is, it is now January, and I didn’t meet those deadlines, many of them I still haven’t delivered on. The other thing to note is that I am both a) still alive, and b) still employed. As someone who has a fairly visceral fear of the deadline, this is pretty shocking to me. So I wanted to kick off the year with what this experience has taught me and what I’m taking from this moving forward. Many of these things the rest of the universe probably already know, but sometimes I take a while to catch up.

Know when a deadline is a deadline and when it is more of a suggestion

The first thing to say is that I have never really taken the time to explore whether the dates or other information given to me are even true deadlines. Give me a date and a time and I will agonise and feel guilt if I fail to deliver.  I work on the assumption that if you give me a cut-off then it really is a task that has one. Reflecting on my Christmas experience however, I have learnt there are probably three scenarios where I will be given deadlines:

  • True deadlines – papers for committee meetings, grant deadlines etc. This is where a number of subsequent actions are riding on yours and if you don’t deliver, the domino effect is both real and important in the wider scheme of things
  • Gate keeping deadlines – manuscript review deadlines for other authors, 1st draft deadlines for policies, etc. This is where the task needs to happen, and in a timely fashion. The exact date itself, however, is arbitrary and so as long as communication is good and the time period doesn’t substantially extend the process itself is unharmed
  • Courtesy deadlines – submitting a conference presentation 3 days ahead (normally), arranging planning meetings etc. These often get given dates to ensure that they happen, but in reality as long as they get done before they evolve into a true deadline i.e. before presenting at the conference, then the timescale is actually flexible

It is really important to understand what kind of deadline you’re dealing with, otherwise you will treat everything as a true deadline (exhibit no. 1 = me) and that means you may deliver on a courtesy deadline over a true deadline, with the associated consequences. Without understanding what type of deadline you have you can also not really be truly aware of all of the possible options you can take when you are truly over whelmed and unable to deliver on everything.

Did you know you can just ask for an extension?

I’m just throwing this out there because it’s something I’ve only recently discovered. Did you know you can ask for an extension? This seems like a really bizarre statement I know, but I knew this was a theoretical possibility when a student but I had no idea it translated to real life. I really didn’t.  When I talk about understanding what your options might be if you can’t manage all of your deadlines, this is what I’m talking about. I didn’t even know this was an option that I could action.

During the pandemic I was forced to write to people on a number of occasions as I kept getting pulled into various last minute urgent events, and thus had no choice. The first few times I emailed to say I wouldn’t make X deadline but I can get it to you at Y, I came close to panic. Every single time I got an email back saying ‘thanks for letting us know, we’re looking forward to getting it on Y’. Not a single angry response. Not a single ‘we’ll find someone better/more available’. Nope. Every time, a chilled out ‘that’s fine’. Now this is just me being me, but why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t someone tell me years ago? All those nights working till midnight as I promised something that day!

The other thing that my husband has been telling me for years and I didn’t believe. Friday deadlines aren’t real (unless it’s an automatic form that could close or a grant deadline where they really mean it). Again, this is something I just didn’t believe, but I now realise. No one is going to go into their inbox to check at 8am on a Saturday morning. The number of midnight’s when I could have been sat on the sofa doing it on Saturday afternoon instead. Friday deadlines, I now realise, are purely there so the info is in someone’s inbox at 9am on Monday morning. Unless the situation is one of the exceptions, no one is impacted. This has even led to a few occasions recently where, because I’m trying not to work on weekends, I’ve just done something at 8am on Monday morning and sent before 9. Shocker, no one has cared.

Prioritise, and sometimes that includes your wellbeing

The other aspect of this is being aware of when sometimes the deadlines are for other people not for you. Courtesy deadlines are often there to make other peoples lives or processes run more smoothly, and I would always support being a good colleague. That said if meeting a courtesy deadline means that you will incur a substantial personal cost, then this is a time to put your communication skills to the test and think about re-framing the deadline.

Once you know which deadlines are really deadlines and which are deadlines can be negotiated, you are then in a position to be able to prioritise. Now, this isn’t just about juggling all those deadline balls, it’s also about when you have to prioritise yourself. It’s important to take ownership, it’s important to be accountable, but not at the expense of your health and mental well being. This can often be challenging, as working out where we are on the list of prioritise is frequently hard to determine when you are in it. This is why checking in with others, and finding helpful critical friends who can give context and perspective may help. I’m reading this out whilst my husband looks at me and roll his eyes – apparently you must also listen to the advice not just seek it.

Failing to meet deadlines is not the end of the world

I don’t really think of myself as being senior, it’s just not really important to me or part of my identity as long as I have a voice. That means it has only been a recent thing that I’ve reflected on my experience over the years with the mentors, Consultants, professors etc in my life. None of them every managed to turn the things I needed around to any deadline I ever set. I sat there and reminded them, sent diary invites to discuss and frequently in the end wrote things for them or submitted anyway. This wasn’t because they didn’t care, it’s just they had so much on their plate and they couldn’t manage it all. Now I don’t want to be that person but we don’t get everything we want in this life, there are only so many hours in a day. Sometimes, therefore, I feel like I am this girl. Why did I think I was special enough to be able to achieve what all those ahead of me could not. Context is key and denial is not always helpful. I can only aim to do better but beating myself up if I fail is not helpful. As my wise DIPC says to me ‘did anyone die?’ If the answer is no, if what actually happened was I disappointed myself, then I have to have perspective and we have to be kinder to ourselves.

There were a few times over the past three years when I had to unexpectedly put my work laptop and phone in a cupboard and step away completely to deal with other life stuff. I missed deadlines, I missed emails, but nothing that I missed still haunts me. Things just didn’t get done. People weren’t angry, people were super understanding, and my teams were wonderful and helped so much. The world continued to turn. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget, as humans are so ego centric, that the world does not stop if we are not in it, the void gets filled. I failed, I survived and so will you.

Tips that I’ve learnt to manage a world filled with deadline pot holes

  • Share the load – be clear that you will need email or calendar reminders – if it is important others will help you get there
  • Aim for clear communication to support prioritisation – if they only email you about it once it probably isn’t that key. Be clear about the fact that you will need prompts or chasers
  • Clear diary time and include it as a specific hold to do the task, rather than just having it on a to do list
  • Ask about deadlines up front before you take on something and be prepared to negotiate your involvement.  Do you still want to be involved? Can you meet their deadlines? Can you adjust their deadlines so they work for you too?
  • Know when deadlines are part of your agenda or part of someone else’s 

All opinions in this blog are my own

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