As the end of June rapidly approaches, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what can still be accomplished this summer (a course re-design? finishing an article or two? pulling together your job application or tenure materials? refreshing your department’s website? learning new skills?) and what probably can’t be (conceiving of a new book project and delivering it to a university press). Last week, Billie’s “Writers’ Bootcamp: Summer Edition” post helpfully gathered ways to commit to the practice of writing; today I want to focus more narrowly on finishing things.
It’s perversely tempting to think, “Ok, I really need to get these articles out, so I’ll redouble my efforts in July--at least 8 hours a day, six days a week.” (Perverse because it’s summer!) As Lexi Rodrigo argues, however, a better approach is to shorten your work day. Obviously, this is within reason--she’s not taking a homeopathic approach to productivity! Instead, she recognizes that there are rapidly diminishing returns to cognitive work, and it’s better to work shorter, but more productively, rather than bingeing:
The truth is, we’re tired, slow, and less creative after working eight hours straight. Deadlines are good, because they force you to stop.
Rodrigo offers five strategies for working well with deadlines: have a deadline for everything; make deadlines challenging but achievable; focus on key tasks; reward yourself; be flexible.
A complement to this focus on deadlines is the research on finishing projects gathered by Heidi Grant Halvorson, which suggests that it’s most helpful to focus on what remains to be done, rather than prematurely celebrating your achievements. (What we might call, following Pulp Fiction, the Mr. Wolf attitude.) Halvorson writes:
Koo and Fishbach’s studies consistently show that when we are pursuing a goal and consider how far we’ve already come, we feel a premature sense of accomplishment and begin to slack off. For instance, in one study, college students studying for an exam in an important course were significantly more motivated to study after being told that they had 52% of the material left to cover, compared to being told that they had already completed 48%.
. . .
If, instead, we focus on how far we have left to go (to-go thinking), motivation is not only sustained, it’s heightened. Fundamentally, this has to do with the way our brains are wired. To-go thinking helps us tune in to the presence of a discrepancy between where we are now and where we want to be. When the human brain detects a discrepancy, it reacts by throwing resources at it: attention, effort, deeper processing of information, and willpower.
As you craft your deadlines for the remaining summer, keep your attention on what has to be done, rather than on the incremental milestones. That will help make sure that--as Rodrigo suggests--you’re focusing on your key tasks and that your deadlines are meaningful. It’s weird to think about summer slipping away--for one thing, my son *just* got out of school Thursday--but there is a ruthlessness about the calendar that needs to be acknowledged.
Do you have a favorite strategy for self-assigned deadlines? Let us know in comments!
Photo by Flickr user Kevin Pack / Creative Commons licensed