Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Slackers: We Do More at the Last Minute Than Most People Do All Day

I don't hate deadlines. Half of you have stopped reading because you think I've been hacked; the rest have stopped reading because you think I'm a traitor, but let me finish--my sentences are very long, and it sometimes takes me quite a while to reach the end of the compound and sometimes-unrelated thoughts that are crammed between periods. It turns out that I don't hate deadlines. What I actually hate is work.

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. - Douglas Adams

Discovering that deadlines aren't the real problem improved--though didn't entirely fix, mind you--the relationship I have with them. As discussed here earlier, knowing how you prefer to deal with work-flow has important implications for career choices. There are jobs that are steady and ceaseless, where deadlines aren't such a big deal because they are more-or-less constant--perhaps daily, hourly, or by the piece. Then there are jobs where an entire year or more culminates in a single accomplishment. This is one of the wonderful and terrifying aspects of the performing arts. While we try to put ourselves in situations that prepare us for the final culminating moment, in the end we usually only get one chance to get it right. Completing work on a deadline is especially difficult when the the task is to make yourself perfect, and perfect on cue.

I am one of those people who thrive on deadlines, nothing brings on inspiration more readily than desperation. - Harry Shearer

I had an ex-administrator theorize that curriculum writing is an ongoing, continual-improvement sort of thing, and therefore it was never really done. It was, in fact, always to be considered a work-in-progress. Under this system, she guaranteed that curriculum writing would not only never be done, it would never be started. Not because curriculum writing isn't important, but because something else that did have a deadline was always going to be done first.

On the other end of the drop-everything-and-do-it spectrum is the IRS deadline of April 15 (sometimes adjusted for weekends and holidays). I actually did go right up to this deadline one time and ended up driving my return to the post office sometime late in the night. A postal employee greeted me at the curb and I handed the envelope over to her. Apparently, despite what any sensible person would expect, she actually was a postal employee and my return was postmarked by the deadline. It's comforting to know that I'm not alone, as this filing extension chart shows:

Deadlines may not always seem helpful. Sometimes deadlines make nearly impossible work seem even more intimidating. However, in so doing they make it clear to us that we will someday be free of this particular task. Sometimes it isn't really help we need at all. I'm reminded of:
Valmont (from Dangerous Liaisons): Help? He doesn't need help. He needs hindrances. If he has to climb over enough of them, he might inadvertently fall on top of her.

Help or hindrance, here's a little list to help you get started:

1. Make your own -if a project doesn't come with a deadline, make one up. I'm planning to do a sprint-distance triathlon next fall. Don't get too excited; I had the same plan a year ago for last fall. Still, if this is ever to really happen it can't just be "some day." Similarly this blog is scheduled for posts once a week. Look through the history to see how often I've made that.

2. Cut them down to size - My wife edits books for a living. This means she is given a couple- or few-hundred pages to complete in two weeks. She manages to avoid doing the entire ream of paper on the last night (something I would almost certainly end up doing, at least once) by setting page goals for each day of the project. The fact that she is terminally behind on these goals means that she also must:

3. Lie (but only to yourself--lying about missed deadlines is entirely useless. In fact, telling a truth that is too often used as a lie is useless, as anyone whose dog has ever eaten anything important well knows)- know the distance between the actual drop-dead deadline and your own typical Slacker delay, then adjust the deadline accordingly. When we got our new online grading program, the principal made grades due at 12:00 midnight. I know a guy who was up doing grades at midnight, and only made it by a couple of minutes (believe it or not, this was not me). Whenever our family is going anywhere we calculate the time we need to leave, and then factor in a standard lie. We all, unfortunately, know about the lie, so we all compensate for it and are usually late anyway, which leads to increasingly devious and exaggerated lies.

5. Triage - not all deadlines are created equal. All of your bills have (or will have when you start getting your own bills) deadlines, but not all deadlines are created equal. A deadline without penalty is more of a suggestion (see also: curriculum writing, above). The credit card that charges a $35 late fee, plus interest, plus cancels all of your reward points, plus changes your interest rate to 29%--yeah, pay those guys first. Your teachers are the same way--some will accept work until five minutes before grades are due, some don't want to see it after the due date, even if you were out sick. Knowing the difference lets you know whose work to do first.

This triage idea becomes particularly complicated when you factor in that some deadlines are important because they are close, and others are important because they're important. For example, cars' engine oil should be changed every 3,000 miles--except the only people who say that also change oil for money. Check your car's owner's manual, but most cars can go at least 5,000 (our cars are scheduled for 7,500). On the other hand, some cars have timing belts. Miss that deadline and you could need a valve job, which is nowhere near as fun as it sounds.

I don't need time, I need a deadline. - Duke Ellington

The flip side to triage can be useful as well. Sometimes much can be accomplished through the careful avoidance of something more important and pressing. Often our refrigerator will become conspicuously clean, and drawers suddenly organized when Jennifer has a looming deadline on a book she isn't enjoying very much. I've written 10,000 words for this blog when I should have been doing grades or cleaning the shower.

To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.
- Leonard Bernstein

Figuring out how you interact with deadlines can be a life-altering experience. Knowing that work that must be done doesn't get any easier when done late can revolutionize a person's productivity. Adjusting to this way of thinking can make a major difference in your life, and you should really get on that. You know, whenever.

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