Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Working through deadline distress

 You feel it coming. That slow throb in the back of your mind. It grows to a low rumble, a background noise that sounds like a subway swooshing along below your feet as you walk from place to place. Soon, though, that subterranean speeding sounds inch closer to the front of your brain. The low tone begins a steady, pulsating metamorphosis until it changes entirely. It is no longer a sound, a throb, or a background noise. It is all you can think about. It emerges completely with a roar, clawing its way to the front of your mind and to the top of your "priorities" list. This beast, this deadline, lives and grows throughout its life-cycle.

One of the best parts of faculty life is the ability to move through different types of projects and tasks. Each day can be different. But there are times where this variability can create stress. In fact, as soon as I embrace a large project I tend to have only a few moments of pure excitement about that project before that low throb begins way in the back of my mind. It won't be long, I now know, before the deadline distress emerges.

How do we balance the need to put our whole focus on one project while others are clamoring for our attention (seemingly) all of the time? I usually feel some level of guilt while working on Project A when I know Project B is waiting or Task A is waiting. This leads to distress about meeting ALL of the deadlines and they all start clawing and pushing their way to the front of my mind. It becomes exhausting.

To stave of the hordes of deadline-dragons, I am always on the lookout for organizational strategies and try every productivity app, program, and book that comes out. I admit it, I am mildly obsessed with personal productivity and find books like "Eat that frog!" constantly living on my e-reader. I have a few tried and true strategies that work well for me. Here's how I juggle some of these tasks as these crazy end of the semester deadlines all screech for attention at the same time.
  • Get organized. No surprise here, if you're a long-time reader. I love to organizing everything. I have a master folder of all of my publication calls, grants, and any "to do" items like submissions to conferences. Keeping these short descriptions all in one place helps me focus and forces me to avoid stacking too many things on my plate at once. I typically put these in order by which item would gain me the most points in my tenure/promotion/annual review packet. This gives me a feeling of control over the tasks.
  • Mark on a master calendar (digital or paper, the idea is to note the deadline date) the last day of submission (for grades, publication, revisions, etc.) and then work my way to an earlier deadline, several days (if possible, I will work two weeks ahead) in advance of the actual deadline. This is my deadline. Yes, I basically lie to myself to get going! It is like setting your alarm clock's time forward so you feel more rushed and supposedly get out the door faster. It is a lie, but it always works well for me.
  • Break the task/project down. Again, this can be done digitally or on paper. I list the major elements that relate to this task and give them each a mini-deadline well in advance of my actual deadline (if possible, some emergency items do come up). I try to also note any thoughts about each part of the project, brainstorm ideas, and revisit this little calendar for each project as I start working so I can track where I am and where I need to be. This also allows me to note that some things just take more time or simply fall off of my radar all together. 
  • Let some things fall off the calendar. Some things won't get done. This is a hard reality for the uber-organized. A search committee duty is sprung on you or you get called to serve in the stead of your Chair at a meeting. You get sick. An assignment flops and you have to spend unexpected time working with a class. Allow the lower-priority items to be the ones that fall off. Then, schedule a time (usually after the semester ends) to revisit the item, but if it is crunch time on a grant, a huge class grading cycle, and a conference is taking place, then sometimes I have to table a lower-priority item. I am working on NOT feeling guilty about this, but admittedly struggle with a feeling of failure when this happens. This is currently the case on a collaborative project that is incredibly interesting, but that I just can't get to it among higher level priorities. 
    • Get it back! When something does fall off, I work diligently to create a plan to pull it back together and communicate with any interested parties. I also try to ignore the low rumble of the deadline that was shoved forcefully behind all other deadlines. This is an ongoing challenge for me. It is related to "saying no" and learning boundaries, which was written about in the earlier blog, "The super power of productive faculty" - Sept. 2011. 
    • Figure it out! Why did ProjectXYZ fall off? Did you lose interest? Was the semester too busy at that point? If so, this knowledge allows us to avoid scheduling during that time in the future--block those dates in the calendar and protect them. Tracking your lack of productivity is as important as tracking your productivity. It informs us about our work cycles, energy levels, and options for the future.   
  • Make the deadlines mean something. Rewards. Bribery. Self-delusion. 
    • Rewards. When I meet a mini-deadline or major deadline, I get a new e-book or a few hours wandering around my amazing city playing "tourist" and absorbing the culture. 
    • Bribery. I am not ashamed to bribe myself, "finish writing this last page and you can go sit outside with a cup of tea and a new novel." When we're weary, a little bribe can go a long way.
    • Self-delusion. One of my most effective techniques is to tell myself how the future will be better once the task is accomplished, "Think how much easier it will be once ItemX is off my mind!" or "I'll have so much more time when I finish ItemX." As if there aren't 20 other items to take ItemX's place. Strange, but somehow it works every time...
  • Remember the goal. Check back (often) with your TENURE and PROMOTION requirements as you organize, prioritize, and focus in on certain projects. Explore what your institution considers "progress" and consider re-prioritizing what may or may not be allowed to "fall off" the calendar. Ask a mentor or senior faculty that you trust to help you prioritize if you are struggling in your first years.
Yes, it is the end of the semester, but you do not have to fall prey to the demons that emerge during deadline distress. Slow down, plan, prioritize, and focus on the bigger goals.
Happy end of the semester!

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