The Usefulness of Deadlines

The Usefulness of Deadlines

Sometimes I’ve said I would love to live in a world without deadlines. And, perhaps such a world could be wonderful. But I am not always sure.

When I was in graduate school, I had two professors during the same semester. Since they were my major and minor area supervisors, this happened most semesters, in fact. One had an absolutely rock-solid deadline policy. I knew he would give extensions for hospitalization and similar extreme reasons (but not much else). The other professor believed an assignment should be turned in on time; but realized that things take their own time. Oddly enough, I had tremendous stress preparing work for both of them. 

With the professor whose deadlines were solid, I felt the approach of those due dates with a dread that literally raised my blood pressure and robbed me of sleep. Even knowing months in advance, I found it difficult to start writing a paper for him more than a week before I was required to turn it in.

The professor who felt things needed the time things needed, however, caused me stress (or, rather, I experienced stress on his account) because he was flexible he wanted the work to be as good as possible. What is good as possible? When can I ever say that a paper is as good as possible? My first papers were turned in on time. Then they were weeks late. Then months late. One paper took me five extra months and left me exhausted from having no time to rest during the summer.

Deadlines, I came to realize, are like walls around a room. They form a ‘container’ for our energy and our efforts. Whether firm or flexible, they mark out a point at which we stop and call something done.

After nearly ruining my health, my professor with the flexible deadlines said that, ‘Yes, it is good to get something as good as possible; but there comes a point where you have to get something done. So, work hard, do a good job, and remember that everyone knows all work is “provisional,” subject to revision and improvement in future work.’

Future work. Yes. It doesn’t help if we ruin ourselves. That prevents future work — better work.

Deadlines are not stress. That is something we add to them. They are simply the frames around our work — like a frame around a picture. They place the particular project in time and mark out space devoted to doing other things.

Interestingly, when I became a professor at university, I adopted a policy of absolute deadlines. In part, I do this as a kindness to my students. They have many other pressing obligations. They need to know that an assignment is not going to haunt them long after its relevance to the course has passed.

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