Monday, January 10, 2011

Slow and Steady Wins the Race: Five Steps to Meeting Your Deadline without Losing Your Sanity

tortoisePicture this: You have a deadline you absolutely must meet or else… So, you drop everything and work every waking moment on your project. Right?

Wrong, unless your deadline is this evening at 5pm. If your deadline is a month, two weeks or even a week away, it will be much more productive and healthy to work slowly towards your goal instead of sprinting at the last minute. Here are five steps you can take to ensure you move forward without over-exerting yourself.

Step # 1: Make a timeline for completion.
Make a timeline that takes into account how much time you have left before your deadline and how much work you have to do. How you do this will depend on your task, but let’s use a conference paper for an example. Suppose you have a conference paper due in two weeks – ten working days. You could either decide to a) write one page each day for ten days or b) break the project down into smaller parts. If you do b) (which I recommend), you could decide to write the Intro on Day 1, the Literature Review on Days 2 and 3, the Methods Section on Day 4, etc…

This timeline is very important both for keeping you on track and for pacing yourself so that you are not sprinting at the last minute because you spent Days 1 to 7 on the literature review.

Step # 2: Set a daily routine.

Every day has 24 hours in it. We cannot change that, but we can make conscious choices about what we do with our time. It is not feasible or productive to try to work on your project for 24 hours a day. It is feasible, however, to work on it in several spurts during the day. It is up to you to figure out when you can work on your project and when you can get all of the other things you need done. Daily routines will vary tremendously, but let’s suppose that you have ten days to write your conference paper, and you are still on winter break. Your daily schedule could look something like this:

9am-11am: Write
11am-12 noon: Check email and respond to anything urgent
12 noon-1pm: Lunch
1pm-3pm: Write
3pm-4pm: Check email, pay bills, make phone calls
4pm-5pm: Make a plan for next day, gather reading materials for the evening.
5pm-6:30: Go to gym
6:30-7:30: Have dinner
7:30-9pm: Catch up on any reading relevant to project.
9pm: Relax, go to sleep.

Step # 3: Break down your project into manageable tasks.

Having a daily routine is great because you know when you are supposed to be writing. However, it is also important to figure out in advance what part of your project you will be working on. Any project can be broken down into specific tasks. Having the project broken down will make it easier to move forward when it is time to write.

Let’s use that conference paper as an example again. One of the parts of the paper will be the literature review that you would be doing on Days 2 and 3, according to the plan above. This needs to be more specific. For example, the literature review could include a section on Foucault. For that section, you might need to a) gather your notes on Foucault, b) read two pieces that use Foucault, c) draft the section, and c) revise the section. Breaking down your conference paper into small, manageable pieces will make the task seem less daunting and easier to approach.

Step # 4: Set a time to do each task in your calendar.

After you have broken down your project into small tasks, the next step is to put those tasks directly into your calendar. From Step 2, you already have designated particular writing and reading times. So, you could put “Gather and summarize notes” in one writing session and “Read two articles” in a reading session.

Step # 5: Execute.

Of course, your fool-proof plan is not very useful if you don’t put it to use. The final step, then, is to execute your plan. This may seem obvious, but I point it out for two reasons. 1) It is crucial to plan first, and act second. 2) Most of us have made plans and not carried them through. There are many reasons for this, but better planning will make it more likely that you do carry out your tasks.

Best of luck meeting your goals!

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