2 ene. 2009

My attitude toward deadlines is that they lead to an illusory perception of time. For example, suppose someone asks me to review a book and gives me four months to do so, when the actual time I would really need to complete the task is, at most, 15 hours of work. So that 15 hours is to be spread over 4 months, or 2,800 hours? In practical terms, the book review will be writtten either fairly soon after the book is received, or right before the deadline. Or, in the worst case, after the deadline. I prefer to do a given task as close to possible from when I agree to do it, even if I consider myself quite busy at the time. The reasons are several: you get the book in the mail and are curious about it. You might as well read it then, while still curious, and write up something immediately. The time closer to the deadline might be just as busy as now is; there's no reason to predict otherwise, so really you are making yourself less busy in the future, freeing yourself up for other opportunities. You also would have to read the book another time, because by this time you've forgotten it completely.

I have missed a few deadlines in the last year or so, whether internally or externally imposed ones. It is never a good thing to do, but it still may happen even to someone with my attitude. My preference is to ignore deadlines in the positive sense: they should never come up as an issue because I am always way ahead of them.

There is an illusion that the work product will be better if it is turned in later. But a book review on which I've spent 15 hours will not be better simply because I spent those hours later rather than sooner. In fact, I would bet that procrastinators turn in writing which is on average worse than non-procrastinators. It is better to hurry at the beginning, hurry to get started, than to hurry just to be late anyway.

When I set a self-imposed deadline for something, I allow myself plenty of time, and then get the job done quicker than I anticipated. So I might give myself two weeks for something that I end up doing in two days. Then I can congratulate myself for making that deadline with so much time to spare.

Some people need deadlines in order to motivate themselves, to create a sense of urgency. They are unable to work up to full speed unless they have that sense of nervousness about making the deadline. I understand this and have myself been such a person at times. What I am suggesting is a different kind of motivational trick: make a game out of starting early, of clearing things off your desk as soon as they arrive. One effect, I predict from my own experience, is that you will be actually doing more but won't have the sense of overwhelming "busyness." You can still complain about how busy you are and how much work you have to your colleagues, in order to maintain your reputation, but you can feel calm on the inside.

5 comentarios:

Elisa Gabbert dijo...

I operate in much the same way. I have a term for this mode: precrastination.

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

Happy New Year, Jonathan. My sense is that people like to work close to (external) deadlines because it gives them as a sense of doing their best under the circumstances. If they finish a book review or paper well in advance of the deadline they feel like they haven't given it their all. My response to this is that "under the circumstances" needs to be redefined as "according to your writing schedule". That is, circumstances can impinge in a more planned way, over a longer span of time. Also: we should not always be doing our best, i.e., running our best time, lifting our maximum weight.

Jonathan dijo...

I'm going to use that "precrastination" myself.

pre = before

cras = tomorrow

Do tomorrow's work today.

I sometimes find myself not sending in something for another day, even if it is done, because I don't want to make it seem I have spent little time on something. Or apologizing only half-ironically for finishing something very quickly.

Jordan dijo...

I never smoked but I imagine breaking my procrastination habit is about as difficult (and as important to my long term health).

Chris dijo...

There's plenty of research to back up that-- in terms of productivity at least-- working to deadlines and being driven by deadlines tends to be an inferior method. Not so sure about creative work. The presumption there, and seemingly here, is that in the case of a book review (as an example), it's about simple work vs non-work hours. But it might be that in writing something like a book review later it actually gives you time for consideration and more contemplation. The subconscious works on problems and puzzles and it takes time to engage more peripheral thinking. If one spends the same amount of hours working (which avoids the problem of rushing), then it might well be better to wait and spend those hours later rather than sooner... or otherwise use the span of time to one's advantage.