can't pin me down

How do you: set deadlines for yourself

Some of us are just deadline people. We do better when there's an outside sense of accountability, when there's a date we can circle on the calendar and work backwards. But for many, the age of deadlines have passed, at least partially. We aren't bound by deadlines as much as we are by checkpoints, and checkpoints can be more flexible. So if you're looking for a sense of urgency with your work, I've compiled by best tips for setting deadlines that work for you without adding unnecessary stress and pressure.

  • Set up a progress report schedule. Are you working on a dissertation? A long term writing project? Make a verbal commitment to sending an update, or better yet, writing, every two weeks or every month. Send an email that updates on what's going well, what could be better, and where you could use support. Is your advisor incredibly busy and isn't interested in that level of detail (mine wasn't) - send them to a friend or even to the void! The schedule takes the pressure off of "do I have enough to update you" and can even give your advisor more insight into how to best advise you. 
  • Use sprints. Split up your time - set goals for the semester, the quarter, the month. I actually really enjoy working in two week sprints - every two weeks I set goals, and then I design my schedule and milestones around that timeframe. Not so long that I feel good about procrastinating, but not so short that if I get sick or something happens, I can still have time to recover. Dr. Pope-Ruark talks about why she sometimes sprints in this blog post - but this is one of my most powerful tools. 
  • Think in terms of milestones, rather than all or nothing dates. Sometimes the problem with a deadline is that it's an all-or-nothing proposition: either you make the deadline, or you don't, with no way to know if you're on track in between. I like imagining different milestones on the way to the deadline, so I have a rough idea of where I am in the process. For example, if you have a chapter draft due on the first of the month, you could set milestones for when your initial reading and research will be complete, when you'll complete the outline, when you'll have a rough draft, when you'll be editing and polishing. Milestones help you visualize the step, and as you go through more and more deadline-setting exercises, you'll get more of a sense of which tasks take longer, and which are shorter, in your process. All good data!
  • Do post-game analysis. You met a deadline, or maybe you missed it - no matter the situation, it's a good chance to do a little post-game analysis. What went well? What worked? What didn't? If you are just racing from one deadline to the next with no analysis, it makes it hard to learn the lessons along the way and make the small course corrections that can be so helpful. Low-stakes, frequent evaluation is the way to go. 
  • Rewards! Celebrations! Accomplishment!  Deadlines are great motivators, but if all you do is set deadlines and then bully yourself into meeting them, you'll eventually hit some sort of wall. If you associate the deadlines and milestones with: purposefully feeling a sense of accomplishment, celebrations (however small/private/free), and rewards, you reinforce with yourself the idea that work makes you feel good. Deadlines + feeling good = outstanding system. 

Don't just set the deadline. Build the system. 

But most importantly, don't buy into the idea that by simply setting a deadline, you'll magically become focused and motivated. Deadlines in previous school or employment situations probably were effective because they were built into a system of evaluation and reward; meet this deadline, get a grade, or meet this deadline and not lose your job. So when you're using deadlines for your self-motivated work, build a system around your deadlines. Set a schedule for evaluation. Connect with your bigger understanding of the stakes. Feel good about yourself when you meet your deadlines, and be gentle with yourself when you miss them (if clear-headed about the causes of the situation.) And most of all, remember that every new project (and every day, if you need it!) is a chance to experiment and refine the system. There's always a chance to do it differently.