With university, work, placements and life in general, deadlines are something I am all too familiar with. Assignment due dates, project timelines, application deadlines, blog post schedules, remembering to put recycling out on the right day. There are all manner of things that need to be done within a certain time frame. But deadlines can do funny things. Sometimes, that looming due date is just the right amount of pressure to make you sit down and power through your work. Other times, it can be paralysing and despite setting aside a whole day to work on a project you realise it’s 6pm and you can’t actually count the number of tea breaks you’ve had or Youtube videos you’ve watched.
Whether we like it or not, deadlines are an essential part of work and life. Without them we might never get anything done. Parkinson’s Law states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Or, in other words, a task will take up as much time as you allow for it. This is why we can sometimes pull together a huge amount of work in a small time but also why we are sometimes left desperately trying to finish something at the very last minute, despite having days or weeks to do it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean those days and weeks were carefree: it is surprising how busy you can feel just thinking about what needs to be done. You can end up using valuable mental energy juggling all the things you need to do in your head rather than actually doing them.
Existing in the space between Parkinson’s Law and deadlines is procrastination. Sometimes procrastination can be productive. In avoiding one task you might throw yourself into another: like writing a Tusk post when you really should be revising your research methods for your thesis. Other times it can see you performing feats of physical endurance. Most procrastinators will be familiar with the all-nighter - something I rarely do anymore, mostly because I can’t actually seem to stay awake. But, I’ve also learnt that while starting your first-year 1000 word assignment at 5pm the day before it is due is really, really stupid, attempting to write your masters-level 6000 word essay is a level of insanity and ambition there just aren’t words for. There is also a big difference between just you and your lecturer knowing that you definitely wrote that in a few hours and putting something up online where potentially more than one person might read it. The fear of professional humiliation can be a strong motivator. But, also a catalyst for remembering how much you liked Shark Week when you were younger and wondering if there are any clips on Youtube. And now it’s the due date. You’re beating yourself up. You’ve potentially wasted an opportunity. You’re stressing and panicking to get it finished by the end of the day. By this stage you don’t care if it’s perfect. In fact, you just want it to be over. You know deep down you could have aced it, if only you had more time, or actually tried. Next time, eh?
So, after several attempts of opening up a nice new word document, writing up a title and then staring blankly at the screen while mentally screaming “Write something! Anything! Oh god… Whhhhyyyyy????!!!!” I began to wonder what exactly it is about deadlines that can be so incredibly paralysing. Obviously, they aren’t inherently evil all on their own. I see them as being made up of two kinds of pressure: external and internal. External pressures are pretty straightforward. They are the transparent, mostly non-judgmental reasons why we need to do things: you are being paid to do it, you need the credits to pass your course, someone is depending on you. The pressure is about delivering a high-quality product, on time. Then there are internal pressures. These are demanding. They are petty, cynical, jealous and mean-spirited. They tell you things like “you suck,” “your writing is not very good is it?” “you can’t submit THAT!” “you should probably just search for Empanada recipes and not bother anymore.”
A number of psychologists view procrastination as a coping mechanism, a kind of avoidance behaviour. Sometimes it’s because what you have to do is so menial and boring you can’t face doing it. But worse is when you feel fear or dread or anxiety. You can temporarily distract yourself by looking at cupcakes on Pinterest but when you go back to the task you feel twice as bad and have even less time. It can turn into a vicious cycle of avoidance, guilt, shame, and eventually, sheer panic. I think an element of these pressures are just part of the territory of being an emerging professional. The sector can seem intimidating and its natural to feel self-doubt. There is a certain level of anxiety which comes with constantly trying to come across as articulate and intelligent but also effortlessly cool. It takes time to find your voice and gain confidence, to think that you might have something valuable to say. I like to think that one day I won’t care or I will at least have built up a solid bank of confidence through experience to dip into when I need it.
Until then, I unfortunately never know which approach to a deadline I will take: will it be the procrastinator; maybe self-sabotage; or, the suck it up and just do it technique. But I have got some strategies. Black and white thinking isn’t helpful. Unrealistic expectations and thinking worst case scenario are sure to induce sidestepping and avoidance. The more stressed I feel the more susceptible I am to the procrastination loop and less equipped to deal with any of the self-doubt and negative self-talk. That’s why it is ok to take a break sometimes. It’s ok to watch three hours of British comedy quiz shows, especially since they are entertaining and educational. Put that phone on airplane mode! Change your thinking: instead of saying “I have to” with all the resentment you can muster, say decisively “I will.” Finally, to-do lists and bite-sized pieces. You need to know what it actually is you need to be doing. What are the little bits and pieces that make up a whole. Realistically, you probably won’t be successful if task number one on your list is “write thesis.” Instead, a 20,000 word thesis becomes a literature review, a methods section, a bibliography. A blog post starts with a title, a first line, an extended search for gifs and pictures. Accomplishing each small action will in turn make you feel better about the task you have to do which helps your self-esteem and all going well will make you less likely to procrastinate!
If all else fails, make a cup tea. There is always tomorrow, right?