failure · organization


I’m in a bind right now because of a missed deadline. Not my own. I’m commenting on a paper at a conference next week, but I only got the paper that I am supposed to respond to a couple of days ago, when I had expected it in mid-February. Under different circumstances, I might be able to produce a 10 minute talk with a week’s notice. And, truth be told, under these circumstances I have to, whether I like it or not. But this particular week I also have to teach, return papers, sit on a candidacy exam, finish another presentation for the same conference, prepare a final assignment, go to a doctor’s appointment, pack and get ready to leave and the rest of the usual stuff. 

And did I mention that it’s a long weekend? Before my son was in daycare, a long weekend was just that, a longer than usual break from responding to email, or having to schedule meetings. But now a long weekend means no daycare on Friday or Monday – the two days I had anticipated, and needed, to finish all this work. 

Such is life and I will get the talk finished. In this particular instance, it was difficult to prepare the talk in advance — given that it is supposed to be a response to the other paper. So I doubt that it will be the most thoughtful, well-researched piece of work I have ever produced. But, truth be told, I see little reason in being angry or frustrated given that, at this point, I can’t change the situation. 

This situation is also far from the first missed deadline I’ve encountered in academia. I’m not strict with my students about deadlines: for major assignments I tell them that, within reason, so long as they contact me in advance of the deadline I will consider an extension. And in every class I have ever taught, even with that flexible policy, at least one student has missed a deadline.

The most egregious missed deadlines I’ve encountered have been when editing journals, issues, or books. Chasing down peer reviewers and revisions are the main reasons I can see, why there can be long delays in works seeing the published light of day. The most frustrating situation I found myself in was when I accepted a series of abstracts for a special issue of a journal and then the deadline for the completed paper came and went, with two of the seven contributors submitting nothing. I tried to contact each author repeatedly but never even got the courtesy of a response. 

And I’m far from innocent in all of this. I have missed deadlines because I misjudged how much work I was taking on; because of circumstances beyond my control (such as when I had my work computer stolen); or because I felt that it was worth taking extra time to complete something. 

What have I learned from all these missed deadlines? 

1) Remind students / contributors / colleagues that things are coming due. Repeat.

2) Don’t miss deadlines. It throws everything off and reflects poorly on you. Sometimes it is more important that you show up then that you be the most brilliant belle at the ball. 

3) If you have to miss a deadline, contact the person to whom the work is due and let them know that you are going to be late and give them a realistic alternate deadline. And then don’t beat yourself up about it. Sh** happens. 

On that note, I have a talk I have to go prepare. 

4 thoughts on “Deadlines

  1. Did you read my post on the 11th hour of the 11th hour? Because that's exactly the problem you're having. I appreciate your zen attitude about this, but it's pretty lousy that missed deadlines are normative.


  2. I did read that post! (And now I'm feeling silly that I didn't reference it but such is my brain these days) and that is exactly the problem.
    I was thinking about ways of making missed deadlines not normative, but to be honest, I have a hard enough time of instilling in my students a strong sense of meeting deadlines. My approach with students has come from experience that when I'm stricter, they still miss the deadlines and I find myself having to manage multiple excuses and late submissions (which only creates more work for me). Having a no exceptions rule has, in the past, penalized students who did have real emergency situations that prevented them from getting something done on time. But given the challenges of instilling in students a strong sense of the importance of deadlines – I can't begin to imagine how to change my colleagues!
    My only hope is to model the behaviour that I wish to see in others. So if I want others to meet deadlines, I meet all of mine and thus people who I work with will know that that is the expectation that I have (even if I haven't said as much explicitly). I certainly know that has worked for me. Being aware of who around me meets their deadlines puts me on my toes and makes me want to emulate what they are doing.


  3. I have been pretty good at meeting deadlines in the past. In undergrad I never handed a single paper in late, and for most of my graduate degree I finished papers early. I have never stayed up all night trying to get something done – my brain doesn't work well past 10pm. However, I have started to slip on my deadlines post-phd. Not big slips, just taking the weekend to complete an essay that I said would be in on Friday. An extra couple of days here and there is all I need. I still think this is unacceptable. I think the job market is so competitive right now (as are the tenure and grant funding markets) that people are simply pushing themselves to overcommit. We are working on too many projects, attending too many conferences, taking on too many students, submitting too many articles, and even with our time maxed out, it often still isn't enough. Too many deadlines can quickly become a few missed deadlines, which in turn quickly becomes a snowballing strategy of never finishing anything on time, ever.


  4. And what can also happen is that you do fine, juggling all those deadlines, making most (and the most important) letting some others slide, but then something unexpected happens, and that carefully constructed edifice of over-commitment comes crumbling down.
    This happened to me a couple of years ago and I ended up withdrawing from a number of projects as a result because it just became completely untenable. But it speaks to the completely unsustainable character of our worklives much of the time.


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