On Deadlines

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Some hard (and sometimes hard-won) truths about deadlines, academic and otherwise:

Some deadlines are really, truly, firm. And some are not.

Some deadlines come with negative consequences for not meeting them in a timely fashion. Some do not.

Some negative consequences take physical or visible forms, such as late fees, delayed diplomas, or cancelled accounts. Some negative consequences are psychological and emotional, such as feelings of embarrassment, guilt, or shame.

Deadlines and their flexibility are, like other resources, typically unevenly distributed (within an organization, within a profession, within the world more broadly). This means that some people have more ability to renegotiate a deadline than others do.


Maria Konnikova’s recent New York Times column, “No Money, No Time” introduced me to the term “time poverty,” which is a useful way of thinking about inequality and deadlines. She explains that:

In the case of someone who isn’t otherwise poor, poverty of time is an unpleasant inconvenience. But for someone whose lack of time is just one of many pressing concerns, the effects compound quickly.

Financial poverty, time poverty, and “bandwith” or attention poverty are often interconnected, according to new research by Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a Princeton psychologist, the co-authors of the recent book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. As Shafir explains,

“When people are juggling time, they are doing something very similar to when they’re juggling finances. It is all scarcity juggling. You borrow from tomorrow, and tomorrow you have less time than you have today, and tomorrow becomes more costly. It’s a very costly loan.” (qtd in Konnikova’s essay)

While small amounts of pressure can be effective (who in academia hasn’t written something for a deadline?), too much pressure is, well, just too much. How we experience pressure varies according to our individual sensibility and according to our circumstances. If, like many people in academia, you are operating under both financial pressures and time pressures, their effects augment each other and can lead to feelings of overwhelm and impaired decision-making. Mullainathan and Shafir suggest that experiencing scarcity of any important resource grabs our attention and can thereby limit our ability to envision alternative solutions. This is why you can very quickly sink into a morass of deadline extensions, guilt, and diminished performance.

A deadline is not just a note on the calendar, or the date on an invoice. It is experienced as part of a much larger network of resources and scarcities that are interconnected in the brain’s responses. Simply recognizing that interconnection can be the start of a compassionate response to your own situation as well as that of others. And, given their findings about cognitive “bandwith” scarcity as an effect of other kinds of scarcity, seeking support or advice outside your own mind can often reveal alternative solutions to a problem that you wouldn’t think of on your own.

Schedules and deadlines are often necessary elements in managing large projects and organizations. But recognizing that for many people, time scarcity may be brutally compounded with other kinds of scarcity, could be a first step towards creating more equitable and humane work environments in academia and beyond.

[Creative Commons licensed image from flickr user takomabibelot]

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