Leah’s PhD: Why You Should Love Deadlines

My first-year report is due soon. August 18th. And, in true Leah fashion, I have already submitted a draft to my supervisors for review. If all goes according to plan, this report will be edited, formatted, and ready for submission by August 11th. If things don’t go according to plan (and they are wont to do), I will have seven days to make sure that everything gets done and is submitted in time.

I love setting deadlines for myself. Planning this way ensures that my research stays on track, and that I have made time for whatever is currently most important in my life. Keeping a visual record of my schedule – for me, it’s a physical agenda, but an iCal works too – allows me to see how busy or available I am in a particular week, so I can make sure I don’t overload myself. Alternatively, I can also see if I have extra free time so I can treat myself to an activity that I may not be able to regularly do (my friend and I are going to WALK WITH BABY ALPACAS in a few weeks!).

In a recent conversation with one of my university’s careers advisers, I went off on a bit of a rant about how valuable I find deadlines. ‘Deadlines are what push me to get things done’, I explained. She looked at me, shocked, and then informed me that I was one of only a few researchers she had met who had openly expressed a fondness for due dates. In her experience, humanities scholars in particular disliked feeling constrained by (usually arbitrary) deadlines.

Readers, I am the only humanities scholar in my family. My parents are numbers people who spent their working lives dashing from meeting to meeting. My sister is a black-and-white science type, who has just begun spending her working life doing quantitative analysis (and dashing from meeting to meeting). We are a busy people and – by necessity – have all perfected the art of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly scheduling.

As I was explaining my love for deadlines to the careers adviser, I emphasized that both the deadlines I am given and the deadlines I set for myself encourage me to be get things done in a timely manner, and instill in me a sense of urgency that drives me to use the time that I spend working effectively. I find that when I feel slightly pushed, my mind more readily draws connections between seemingly disparate ideas, thereby bolstering my creativity (interestingly, the notion that creativity is enhanced by constraint features heavily in my research). Because I tend to use my working time effectively, I can then enjoy the time I don’t spend researching doing things that give me a break from my research. Sure, schedules don’t always go according to plan, but planning allows me to check that I always have some contingency time.

Now, I get it. Not everyone likes working this way, and not everyone finds productivity through anal-retentive scheduling practices. Freedom to spend one’s time as one wishes can be liberating. And the great thing about academia (at least in my department) is that it can be extremely flexible with when and where a scholar chooses to work. You can make your work life work for you.

Yet something that became increasingly clear as I spoke to the careers officer about deadlines was that I love deadlines not just because they help me organize my own life. No, dear reader. As my soliloquy progressed, I began unintentionally articulating the main reason I love deadlines: adherence to deadlines reflects interpersonal respect.

Deadlines are not for you.

Deadlines are for other people.

Recently a series of comics by Yao Xiao encouraging people to say ‘thank you’ instead of ‘sorry’ circulated on Facebook. I actually do like this idea – there’s a lot that we shouldn’t be apologizing for (mental health blips, amirite?). Nevertheless, one of the comics niggled at me.

stop-saying-sorry-say-thank-you-comic-yao-xiao-1

No.

No, no, no.

I get it. Things happen, and it’s completely fine to run late every once in a while. You can’t control traffic. Maybe a tourist needed directions. Sometimes you just have no idea how long it will actually take to get somewhere. There are good reasons for being late, and no one expects you to be punctual all the time.

However, those who make a habit of being late, of continuously not planning for contingency time, should be sorry. By being late simply because you’ve not planned appropriately (or at all) simply reveals a lack of respect for the other person’s time. A meeting time is a commitment that you yourself have agreed to. How can you expect the other person to respect your time if you don’t respect theirs? More broadly, how can you expect that person to respect you if you don’t honour your commitments?

A deadline is a similar commitment. Sure, deadlines can seem arbitrary, and can sometimes cause a bit of stress if work isn’t working. In that case, communicate your difficulty in meeting the deadline to the relevant person and see about getting it altered. But by being late – by downplaying or disregarding the deadline – you are disrespecting whoever is waiting’s time.

Your work is not just about you. There are times when you need to articulate what you are doing to other people so they can make sure that you are on track. There are times when you will need to collaborate, and people may be kept waiting as you finish up your assigned tasks. You will need to conclude whatever project you are working on eventually, even though it may seem that you could go on forever.

But you can’t go on forever.

Suck it up, get it done to the best of your ability, and move on.

You work with other people. Respect them.

Respect yourself.

#micdrop

Sunday Book-Thought 51

The reality, of course, is that every writer’s individual habits and practices are deeply personal and idiosyncratic, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to extract patterns in support of generalizable conclusions – beyond the intense intimacy and commitment that the act of writing invariably demands. Some writers dictate aloud. Some write longhand and then type their work on a typewriter or computer. Some compose at the keyboard but then print out their work for handwritten revision. Others don’t need the hard copy. Some writers print everything out, mark it up, and then retype it themselves. Others hand it off to an assistant. A few still revise by (literally) copying and pasting strips of text. Some writers find the computer alienating, intimidating. Others see it as an intimate, profoundly unmediated experience. Some writers value the slowness of the pen. Some value the speed of the keyboard. Some chafe at the labor of retyping, others embrace it. Some writers are enamored by the small rituals of the process, the changing of the worn-out ribbon, the bright bell of the carriage return. Others are unsentimental. Some writers require an absolutely specific instrument – or setting, or time of day, or slant of light, just so. Others write on anything and everything, anytime, anywhere. Work your way through “The Art of Fiction” and its kindred features in the Paris Review – what George Steiner, in his own “Art of Criticism” interview, describes as “the largest collection of insight into this of any publication” – and you can find accounts describing all of these and more. The one inescapable conclusion is that our instruments of composition, be they a Remington or a Macintosh, all serve to focalize and amplify our imagination of what writing is.
Matthew G. KirschenbaumTrack Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing ( Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), pp. 22-23