By Kellee Weinhold, TPII Productivity Coach
Welcome to the Productivity Post!
Each(ish) Tuesday, I share some of the ideas and strategies that inform my coaching in UNSTUCK: The Art of Productivity.
Sometimes, I even record a coaching session! (This is not one of those weeks.)
As promised, this week’s productivity post will take up the question of deadlines that we miss. Or more accurately how you can stop missing deadlines and reclaim your self-worth.
Although the ultimate goal is to be able to decide IN ADVANCE when you can submit a document, for today let’s talk about how to deal with the deadline that is long passed and unmet.
Whether you acknowledge it or not, every single day you drag around that missed deadline takes a toll on your energy. It weighs on your psyche. It weighs on your self-esteem. It weighs on your faith that you can do this career you have chosen.
The majority of clients that I work with come to me with a backpack full of blown deadlines. They were supposed to have something turned in last week, last month, last year and instead have ground to a halt under the weight of shame.
Invariably, they lament, “What is wrong with me?”
In asking the question, they reveal a deeply held and false belief: A blown deadline is evidence of an inherent flaw that disqualifies the transgressor from being a “real” academic.
If a blown deadline disqualified you from academia, Universities would be empty of all but a few staff members.
Academics don’t miss deadlines because of some inherent flaw. You miss them because you have no idea how long it will take to do the thing you promised to do.* Without that information, you are basing your agreement to meet a deadline on either the request of the person asking or on the ever-present imaginary force that dictates when you “should” turn it in.
And the most common outcome: Past due and desperate.
Unfortunately, your instinct in this desperation is to pencil in unreasonable block of time to miraculously finish that thing you have failed to move forward for xx amount of time. You know that one, right?
“I’m going to set aside this weekend and get that R and R finished once and for all!”
Never mind that this same R&R has been sitting in your computer for the past year-and-a-half and you have already penciled in endless hours to buckle down and get the damn thing done only to add another failed intention to the shame pile.
A side note: Binge writing is not the path to meeting a blown deadline. It is a way to learn to loathe writing and avoid it even more vigorously.
The reality is that you have no idea how much time it will take to finish the thing and claiming it will be finished in weekend without a clear idea of what “finished” entails is straight up fiction. Stop lying to yourself. Start gathering actual information.
The three-part process we use in UNSTUCK is designed to calm down your shame response to the problems with your work and gather data on how to correct it.
I’ll be honest. You will most likely hate this process (at least in the beginning). You will run headlong into some pretty nasty self talk. The blue meanies (UNSTUCK lingo for the mean voices chattering in your head about your work) will have a field day with you. But I promise, if you push through, it will get better. And what the hell, you already feel shitty about your blown deadline so why not?
Step One: Let’s get this thing out of your backpack and face the physical product.
Open it. Print it out. Then, read it through completely without a pen or pencil in your hand. Just read. Be prepared for the aforementioned blue meanies). It is soooooo easy to see what you did wrong and very hard to see what you’ve done right. That’s ok. Be brave. Stay the course. You are working in part to get past all the chatter to the actual work.
Step Two: Read it again.
Probably not right away. That is asking a whole lot of yourself. Give it a day and this time read it with a pen or pencil in your hand, but DO NOT EDIT! Simply make a check mark in the margins next to the things that you identify as needing to be resolved. The repeated exposure will start to calm down the shame response and the check marks will actually give you something to address!
Step Three: Make a list of changes that the check marks represent.
NOW you have an actual idea of what you need to do to finish. While the list may seem overwhelming at first, remember those changes were always there. But now, rather than a swirling mass of anxiety, they are discrete items that can be engaged and checked off! Hurray for checking off items on a list!
As you create your to-do list, work on breaking each item into a 15 minute task.* SPOILER ALERT: You’re going to completely over-estimate what you can do in 15 minutes. That’s okay. Keep adjusting. You will learn.
So wait, what does this have to do with deadlines?
It’s simple. You have to understand what you need to do in order to determine how much time it’s going to take you to do it. And then you need to learn how much time the things you need to do will take YOU to do. Not an imaginary academic. You. And like all good data collection, it will take some trial and error.
Once you have a sense of what you are up against, you can get closer to an accurate finish date.
Did you feel a little dread right as you read that? The anxiety start to creep in? Wait! What if I am wrong? Wait! If I actually plan to finish this thing, doesn’t that mean I will have to contact that person I have been avoiding and claim I will do something I failed to do last time? Yep. The only way to get rid of that missed deadline rock is to admit your mistake and make amends.**
FYI: This system also works for a rapidly approaching deadline. If you have something due this week or the next week, or next month or whenever, spend some time determining exactly what needs to be done to finish the piece. If it is clear that you will not make the deadline, contact the recipient immediately and let him or her know. They will WELCOME the advance warning and an accurate deadline. It is exhausting to plan on something coming in only to be tasked with badgering the missing person until it does. And if for some reason when you get back in contact with that editor and he or she says sorry we can’t take it, then you can let it go and move on. You weren’t going to be accepted anyway so you haven’t lost anything.
*Please see my post last week for a system to break down your work into SMART tasks. (Specific. Measurable. Relevant/Realistic and Timely).
** Next week we’ll talk about how to get over yourself and face your shame to get in touch with that editor/colleague/collaborator/advisor who has been waiting all this time to get the doc you’re finally going to finish.