“Is there any point in having a deadline? I have tried so many times, but failed to meet them, so I stopped. Then again, I feel like I miss having a deadline as it may motivate me to focus more.”
The short answer: deadlines are useful until they are not.
The main use of deadlines is to set an end point. It helps focus the mind, it gives you a shot of adrenalin in the run-up to the set date which helps us get stuff done. It also allows you to draw a line: academic work is never finished so at some point you need to declare it finished. Deadlines are very helpful here: you have done what you can, within the set time-frame, and that’s it. Done. Finished. (Though, mostly, you will have a few more rounds of revisions to do. File under: academic work is never finished…)
The moment deadlines stop being useful is the moment they start causing you prolonged stress. I’m not talking about the boost you get right before a deadline, I am talking about more abstract worries that run along the lines of: ‘I am never going to get this paper written on time, this is never going to work out, everyone will see I don’t have what it takes, I am so behind already, I should have done this all differently and now it is too late, oh my god what is going to happen if I don’t make my deadline again, I feel like such a failure’.
Once you get to this point you are in full-on stress-mode, and at this point stress is no longer that friendly, exciting boost. It is depleting your resources. You are worrying about your PhD, not working on your PhD. It is taking you down a path that makes you feel really bad about yourself too…
If you are at that point, it is wise to switch from working in a goal-oriented (deadline-obsessed) way to a process-oriented (one-step-at-a-time) way.
Hold the deadline very loosely in mind, that is, it is useful if some part of you knows you have the intention to finish your paper/ whatever it is, at that point in time. Then let it go. No need to worry about it further.
Instead, focus on the steps that will lead you to finish your paper.
If you focus on tackling the next small step that will help your work a step forward every work session you are on track to meeting that deadline. It is all you have to do.
This can feel really scary: doesn’t letting go of the deadline mean we are not going to meet it? Aren’t we supposed to be worried about our deadlines??
Perhaps not. It is more useful to very simply and plainly do the work, not the worrying.
When I was finishing my own PhD this was a huge theme for me. Because I only had limited energy available I was scared I was going to fail spectacularly. That is, until I realised this way of working was making me feel horrible! Let’s not do that anymore.
Who cares about the stupid deadline anyway. In a way it is arbitrary, and if our work is finished a week, or a month later, why be less pleased with it? Isn’t this the way academia works anyway?
Focus on the quality of your work, not the deadline. This is your job, worrying about deadlines is not.
Once I allowed myself to drop the deadline, I met my deadlines anyway. No miracles involved, only focusing on the next step. And being kind to myself in the process… Why not give it a try.
If you’d like to meet your deadlines (sorry, couldn’t resist!), sign up for the Stress-Free PhD Programme. It will help you dial down the worries, and get your work done. I have a number of free resources available for newsletter subscribers. One of them a worksheet to help you design a highly effective workday. Leave your email to sign up: