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How I Manage Deadlines: 5 Ways to Keep Projects on Track

How to reduce stress, make progress, and never pull an all-nighter again

I had claimed a spot on the plush off-white rug, near the dorm room door. My laptop was open, with pages of notes scrawled on college-ruled paper and a handful of reference books spread out on the floor around me, like a second carpet of information. One of my friends was at his desk; the other had claimed the bed. The only sounds were typing, the scratching of pen on paper, and occasional conversation about robots and red harvester ants.

We were all working on the infamous "ant paper"—the final big paper that everyone in Vassar's Cognitive Science program's Perception & Action class (COGS-211) had to write. Mine clocked in at 18 pages, over 11,000 words. The premise: design a robot able to infiltrate a colony of red harvester ants, completely undetected by the other ants.

The paper was due the next morning. I was putting the finishing touches on my paper—adding pseudocode and ant-related puns, double-checking references, explaining the robot's architecture in more detail. In a moment of inspiration, I titled the whole project "Operation Anterson" and named my robotic ant Agent Smith.

At least one of my friends had started the paper that day. Both of them stayed up all night trying to finish it. I hung out until 2:00am—not strictly necessary, but I didn't have anything critical happening the next morning, and it seemed nice to stay, for solidarity.

Procrastination, project deadlines, and all-nighters

My experience working on the ant paper was typical. In college, I generally started assignments earlier than most, or all, of my classmates. Sometimes, I turned in papers before the deadline. And I never pulled an all-nighter. This trend continued through grad school and beyond. I manage my time carefully.

A couple months ago, I listened to an episode of the Writing Excuses podcast on writing under deadlines. Many suggestions the hosts had for managing projects and meeting deadlines were things I started doing in college, or before.

Am I an outlier? Perhaps—or perhaps, with homeschooling as my start, I've simply had more practice managing my own time than the average person. I've certainly been interested in improving my time management skills—I don't particularly like the stress of last minute work. Interest and motivation can go a long way.

Do you want to make consistent progress on your projects, reduce your stress levels, and get better at managing deadlines? Here are five things I do that you could try.

1: Care about the outcome

First, I drop projects I don't care about. I have to care about the project to put effort into it. If I care about the outcome of a project, it's much easier for me to make time to work on it.

Formal education tends to artificially create a sense of investment in assignments and exams using grades—you're supposed to care about getting good grades, so then you ought to care about all the little things you're told to do that will get you a good grade. Extrinsic motivators like that can work, to an extent, for a while. (There's cool psychology research suggesting that too much use of extrinsic motivators can ultimately decrease motivation... oops.)

But outside of schooling, there are no grades. Sure, there are paychecks. Paychecks are a decent reason to be motivated to complete a project. But they're still extrinsic. You may not care as much about the quality of your work, because at least if you finish it, you're getting paid (so long as you perform well enough to not be fired).

Better is when you're doing a project because you care about it. That's intrinsic motivation.

2: Work before the deadline looms

In that Writing Excuses episode, the hosts discussed how they manage long-term projects. These are the hard ones: there's a distant deadline, hanging out by the horizon, some eight months in the future… and for writers, who tend to be freelance or self-employed, there's generally no boss telling you to work everyday. Possibly no milestones in particular beyond "deliver a manuscript in eight months." That's the kind of situation ripe for procrastination and epic failure.

My PhD work and dissertation are good examples of long-term, mostly self-managed projects. They had many components that needed to be completed over an indefinite amount of time—experiments, data analysis, writing, discussions with my committee, etc.

To keep myself on track, I created my own deadlines. I set up milestones to complete along the way, working backwards from my planned graduation date to ensure I could fit everything necessary in.

My approach was effective. Like the Writing Excuses authors, my goal was to avoid having "crunch time." The way to do that? Do not spend 5 months procrastinating when you only have 8 months to do a project.

I kept working on pieces of my dissertation even when the deadline didn't feel urgent. For example, I wrote some of my chapters more than a year before I turned in the final document. That was the only way to avoid the stress of having a crunch time—which is bad for mental and emotional health, and doesn't produce the best work. I learned that lesson early. Procrastinating on a project produces more stress for me than not doing so. So, I start early. I give myself plenty of time to work, incrementally, over a longer period of time. That way, I never get to crunch time. No all-nighters.

3: Break work into smaller pieces

One reason people procrastinate on large projects is because those projects are daunting. Big chunks of work and big milestones are intimidating. The solution? Break up work into smaller, more manageable, more doable pieces.

For example, instead of having "write that paper" on my to-do list, I will break out writing the paper into smaller pieces, such as writing the introduction, reading two relevant background papers I'd found, finishing the data analysis, making graphs for the results section, and so forth.

When I was doing my dissertation, I had a whole spreadsheet just to track the tasks for doing the whole thing, subdivided into sections for writing the actual document, each empirical study I was running (with subsections for technical work, such as robot code, study assessments, data analysis, and study mechanics like contacting schools for data collection), dissertation-related papers I was working on, and so forth.

The hard part of breaking work into smaller pieces is knowing what smaller pieces can comprise the larger project. That takes practice. You can take cues from other people working on similar projects regarding how they have broken them up into smaller milestones.

4: Work every day

After breaking up a project into manageable pieces, I work on one of those pieces every day. I don't have to complete a piece every day, but working every day means I make slow, but steady progress. I am the turtle running the race, not the hare.

For example, a while back, I decided I needed to be writing regularly in order to complete the variety of writing projects I have going: this blog, academic papers, a nonfiction book, etc. So, looking at my schedule, I decided to add in 200 words a day of writing first drafts on top of any other work I might do. I can write or dictate first drafts pretty easily on my phone while feeding a baby or watching the kids play in the backyard. (Revision requires a larger screen—I need to be able to see more of the text at once.)

While 200 words may not sound like much, it ensures I make steady, if slow, progress toward my writing goals—especially important for the projects that don't feel urgent, with distant or non-existent deadlines. Plus, 200 words is my minimum. Some days, I write more.

5: Fill a Work Buffer

One of the Writing Excuses podcasters writes a daily comic strip. He explained how, for 20 years, he never missed a daily update. He did that by having a large buffer of comics queued up—anywhere from 7 to 30—so that when he needed a day off or had to fix a leak in his bathroom, he could do that without interrupting his daily update schedule.

I've been attempting to have a buffer of blog posts queued for the Owl, with varying amounts of success. We did well in January. We knew we would have several wild weeks around the birth of our third little one, and didn't want the added stress of ensuring our blog posts were on time.

Having a work buffer isn't applicable advice for all kinds of projects, but for those with regular recurring deadlines, it can come in very handy.

Go forth and work

In summary, care about your projects. Start working long before the deadline—avoid crunch time. Break large projects into smaller, more manageable pieces. Do a little work every day. Build up a work buffer.

What tips do you have for managing projects and meeting deadlines?

Like this post? You'll find even more detailed advice about managing grad school and life in my new book, Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research. Order it today!

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

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