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Monday Master Class: The Retreating Deadline Method

September 22nd, 2008 · 13 comments

Dated ThinkingRelaxed Reader

I rarely know the date that things are due. Yet I’m not disorganized. I check my calendar every morning, and it contains dozens of deadlines. But here’s the thing: few of them match the actual due dates. They are almost all earlier; sometimes much earlier.

I’m not sure exactly when I started this habit. It was sometime during college. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a clever strategy; it was, instead, just something I did to keep stress low and my feeling of self-control high. Only now am I’m starting to recognize it for what it is: a highly effective strategy for handling a college-level workload.

The Retreating Deadline Method

I can formalize this habit of mine as follows:

  • Shift the due dates of all major assignments, papers, and exams at least one day earlier on your calender.
  • For the purposes of working on the assignment, writing the paper, or studying for the exam, forget about the original date. (Obviously, for the purposes of taking an exam, remember the real date!)
  • Construct your work schedule to finish by the new date, as if it was real.

The benefit of this advice is profound. By avoiding work on the day before something is due you basically avoid ever feeling time pressure. This significantly reduces your student stress. (Even if you’re super efficient, it’s still nerve-wracking to wake up the day before a paper deadline with a lot of writing to complete.)

Another benefit is the sense of self control you gain by freeing yourself from a “last minute” mindset. When you finish assignments a day (or more) before your classmates’ final scrambles, you feel like you’re the master of your own academic universe. This confidence is exhiliarting.

But What About Procrastination?

There’s an elephant in the room here: procrastination. Some students react to this suggestion with disbelief. “I can’t finish work early!” they cry. “I’m a procrastinator!”

Let’s deconstruct this complaint. As we know, there are two sources of procrastination. The first is deep procrastination, which comes from a fundamental resentment toward to difficulty of your workload. If you’re suffering from deep procrastination, no small strategy will help you. The only solution is to simplify. Switch to a major you like, drop most of your “List A” activities, and take a reasonable course load.

The other type of procrastination comes from poor scheduling — “I have plenty of time…oh shit, it’s due tomorrow!” — and bad study habits — “I don’t even know how to get started.” Both are easily fixed. Get a calendar. And make a study plan for each assignment, paper, or test. (Browse the study tips archives for tactical inspiration.)

A Small Change. A Big Impact

What’s nice about the retreating deadline method is that it doesn’t require more work. It simply shifts your existing work by a small amount. This small change, however, radically transforms the way you feel you about your student life. If you’re tired of stress, try this for a few upcoming assignments. You’ll be hooked.

13 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Retreating Deadline Method

  1. Struggling Student says:

    Cal,

    Thanks so much for this blog. It’s been a great source of ideas for me.

    I have a question/problem and I’d appreciate your input. I’m currently a fourth year Ph.D. in the social sciences. I’m teaching one course and (supposedly) writing my dissertation proposal. Problem is, I’m a DEEP procrastinator. I’ve since decided that I won’t be remaining in academia and as such, getting a Ph.D. is no longer consistent with my career goals. It feels silly to quit this close to the end; on the other hand, the dissertation is the biggest hurdle yet. I go back and forth about whether I want to stick this out to the end, but in the meantime, I resent having to work on a dissertation that doesn’t interest me (my chair essentially created my topic) and I don’t actually need to finish. Part of me wants to keep going, but (the I think larger) part wants to just stop this torture.

    In the meantime, I’ve made so little progress on my proposal in the last several months. The larger issue is not being able to commit to stick with this, but on a more practical level the issue is how to overcome this ambivalence and deep procrastination and get work done. I’ve always had a hard time breaking large tasks down into smaller ones. Up until now, I would just sit down and hammer out an entire paper a week or two before it was due. Needless to say, this technique isn’t working for this project, but I’m having a hard time figuring out what will work for me.

    My question for you is: given the source of procrastination and my relative inability to change direction at this point (short of leaving the program), do you have any suggestions for continuing to slog through despite deep procrastination? When I write it down, it sure sounds silly (to keep slogging on, despite deep procrastination) but that’s where I find myself.

    Thank you,

    Struggling Student

  2. Study Hacks says:

    My question for you is: given the source of procrastination and my relative inability to change direction at this point (short of leaving the program), do you have any suggestions for continuing to slog through despite deep procrastination?

    Dissertations are tricky. Or so I’m finding. The key is to demystify it. Break every down to pieces. Have a system for each piece. Then mechanically do you work: 1 – 3 hours per day, 5 days a week. The results will start to accrue.

  3. Daisy says:

    haven’t been around in a while; have lots of catching up to do.

    actually just finished a really stressful time over projects and exams running ahead of me. I even got sick and ended up not doing so well on some of my exams because of it.

    suffice to say, I’m definitely willing to take a crack at this. I feel like no one can be as tired of stress as I am right now!

    thanks!

  4. David says:

    Excellent post. This takes the idea of having arbitrary deadlines and distancing yourself from the deadlines of other people a step further. An idea similar to this one is to overschedule yourself (with fun/random things like parties, NOT with 10 club meetings and other “List A” activities) OR to understand your limits in such a way that you’re convinced that whatever you hope to do has to be done at a certain time or else it will never get done. As an example of one of my limits, I’m convinced that I can’t work on two term papers in one day (or at least can’t do so well). Thus I know that if work on one paper gets done on a particular day, no significant work on the other paper will be accomplished on that same day. This may seem weird, but it actually builds trust in your scheduling abilities (which is vastly important) in addition to forcing you to complete your project at one time.

  5. Grad Hacker says:

    I like this idea, or perhaps the idea of this idea. But don’t you ever end up suffering from “deadline blindness” since you know that none of them are real, you just start psychologically ignoring the deadlines on your calendar? It’s like folks that set their alarm clock a few minutes early then just sleep in anyways knowing it’s a few minutes early.

    (I say this knowing that with some discipline you can start sticking to your own fake deadlines. Like when anyone tells themselves, “I have to get this done today.” and does, it feels good. But I feel that if I did this with too much stuff and had dozens of deadlines on my calendar, I would start getting deadline blindness.)

  6. Study Hacks says:

    But don’t you ever end up suffering from “deadline blindness” since you know that none of them are real, you just start psychologically ignoring the deadlines on your calendar?

    Not really. But I honestly dislike working on things the day before they’re due. It’s too much pressure on one day. Makes me lose sleep. The problem I sometimes face is with collaborators, as they get confused when I show up frantic about getting a paper done and they have to remind me that the real due date isn’t until the next week or some such.

  7. Nate says:

    To be honest, I prefer the idea of starting earlier than the idea of setting a deadline to be sooner.

    There is no huge distinction of the two methods, but I prefer starting early because it saves me the time of altering existing schedules to be one day earlier.

    While an excellent idea, I would most likely not use this method. However, for those who suffer from deep procrastination, give this idea a try, along with some type of work progress journal (another great idea mentioned in Straight A’s).

  8. Kit says:

    This method actually seems redundant to me – if you’re convincing yourself of this earlier due date to avoid the stress of doing it last minute, wouldn’t you have the same situation when working on something the day before your self-convinced due date?

  9. Mary says:

    @Kit – it works for me. I know I’m meeting the deadline *I* set. It makes all the difference in the world. I’m in control.

  10. Laura says:

    That Stephenson quote completely blew my mind. Thank you so much for sharing it. I am in a creative line of work and never really thought of allowing myself to quit (for the day maybe just for that project) once I know I’ve gone past that productive point. Just because I have time to keep working on a project doesn’t mean I should. I’m going to go plan my week around this idea. This just got me totally excited about work. Thanks!

  11. Study Hacks says:

    I am in a creative line of work and never really thought of allowing myself to quit (for the day maybe just for that project) once I know I’ve gone past that productive point.

    This seems like a common problem with people who work on self-directed projects — the guilt that you should always be working more.

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