Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Beware of Ides: Why Fake Deadlines Didn't Work For Me

Procrastination. It affects most of us to some extent. I know I'm not the only one who has put off important projects or had trouble completing a big project on time. I'm certainly not the only Ph.D. candidate who had trouble writing my dissertation. One friend even talked about "ironing shoelaces" as what typically happens to people writing their dissertation: they'll do any trivial and unnecessary task to get out of doing more writing on their big project.

There is also lots of advice out there for fixing procrastination. One of the techniques frequently recommended is to set personal deadlines for a project or steps within a project.

I've tried that a number of times. I tried setting deadlines for my dissertation but I was always giving myself excuses. The same thing happened with my novel. I thought I had the perfect solution--to make myself work on my novel more often, I would set a deadline every month where I had to share my progress with my husband, and he'd do the same with his writing project. Since we'd have to be able to show progress every month, I thought this would keep us from slacking off too much on our writing.

I chose the Ides (the 15th of the month, made famous as the Ides of March when Julius Caesar was killed--"Beware the Ides of March!"). It was easy to remember, had a slightly ominous sound to it (thanks to the play) and was in the middle of the month so not too close to a lot of major holidays, so it seemed perfect.

The problem is that we haven't actually kept it even once since I started this program. That's right, in the 8 months since I planned to show progress on the Ides, my husband and I have not actually shown each other any writing.

The reason? Personal deadlines like this are fake. There is no bite behind their bark. I know there are no consequences for waiting a few days (which then turns into weeks). There is nobody holding me responsible for missing the deadline. I'm used to feeling guilty over not getting something done so this doesn't add enough guilt to make a difference.

During my dissertation, the only reason I finished was that my Chair announced that I was taking too long and set me a series of deadlines. If I missed even one deadline, she said, I would be asked to leave the program. Needless to say, I worked day and night to make each deadline (sometimes barely getting the chapter in to her on time, but never, ever missing the deadline). Those deadlines were serious deadlines and I didn't think about cheating.

I don't have the same pressure on me for any deadline I set myself. My husband would never hold me to a deadline in the same serious way and I know it. The pressure isn't coming from outside and is too easy to push off.

I suspect that this idea of setting personal deadlines only works for a small percentage of the people who have problems with procrastination. For some, it works because they don't have that serious of a problem with procrastination and the little extra personal competition (feeling like you should try to beat a deadline you set) or the discipline necessary to hold to a deadline was already there. Others may have a family member or friend who will hold them to a personal deadline with the same rigidity that my dissertation Chair did with me.

Unless one of these is true, a fake deadline may not work to stop procrastination. I'm still finding the perfect tools to help with my problems. People ar different in the ways they procrastinate, so the tools which are available need to be adapted a bit for the person having the problem. I seem to respond to hard deadlines, clear to do lists, strong motivation (reminding myself why I want to do something), appointments with myself, and timers. Sometimes these things work better than others.

I'm just coming out of one of my procrastination periods where I had a harder time getting things done. Things go in cycles – with my ability to get things done improving and then getting worse again. I'm now in the upswing so it is time to get caught up. Maybe I'll eventually figure out a way to keep me from crashing down into the nonproductive time periods, but I don't think it will have anything to do with the Ides of the month.

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