Taxonomy of Deadlines

Hour glassI love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise that they make as they fly by.
—Douglas Adams

Everyone has deadlines, whether it’s finishing a work assignment, paying bills or applying for a grant. Some people like having deadlines; it forces them to complete a task within a specific timeframe. Some people hate deadlines because it can stifle creativity or add more stress to already stressful projects.
Me? I like deadlines.

Let me be more specific: I like a certain type of deadline.

All deadlines are not created equal. Over the years. I have developed my own taxonomy system to classify the types of deadlines that I have encountered:

  1. Hard and fast deadlines. The deadline is unchanging and will shift for no man or woman. You will meet the deadline or face the consequences.
  2. Soft deadlines that have a little wiggle room. The deadline shifts but not significantly.
  3. Ever-changing deadlines. Once set, these deadlines start sliding, sometimes by small time increments, sometimes by leaps and bounds. “When does the project really need to be completed?” you ask. No one can say with certainty.
  4. Unreasonable deadlines. You know that these deadlines will never be met. Yet, you are forced to try to meet them.
  5. Arbitrary deadlines. No rhyme or reason was applied when these deadlines are set.

These categories are not mutually exclusive. There can be quite a bit of overlap between them. For example, a deadline can fall into both the “unreasonable” and “hard and fast” categories (a vicious combination that can result in a lot of gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair). Also, the category assigned to a deadline can change. Some start out with the “hard and fast” designation, only to slip into the “ever-changing” category. [In my experience, the probability that a deadline will change is directly proportional to the complexity of the project or task.] Understanding this taxonomy can help you plan a project more successfully. At the very least, it can help you identify the type of deadline that you face and decide how to best prepare for it.

The type of deadline that I like best is the one that does not change. Unfortunately, in my experience, these are often the rarest. I predict that the prevalence is not much higher than that of the Amur tiger or Yangtze River Dolphin. Maybe I like unchanging deadlines because, more often than not, I meet deadlines assigned to me, and when one is postponed, I feel that any extra effort expended to meet that deadline was wasted. Also, I have limited time and resources, so getting a project done by a certain date often means prioritization. If I focus on one project, I have less time and energy to spend on other projects that require my attention.

My least favorite type is the ever-changing deadline. After a project timeline shifts a few times, it becomes very difficult for me to believe the new deadline. I get more frustrated each time the deadline changes until, after a few delays, I start to disbelieve any new deadline that is assigned because experience has taught me that it will change again. I’m certain that this is a defense mechanism to help preserve my sanity. So, how do I cope with ever-changing deadlines? If I am expending extra effort to get a project done, I want to make sure that I am working toward the most current deadline, so I try to get frequent updates from the person who creates the timeline. How confident is he or she about that new date? Often, there are other tasks that were assigned to other people and need to be complete before a project is finished. How are those other tasks progressing? Finally and frankly, I don’t panic if I am not on pace to meet the deadline. As long as I am fairly close to having the project complete by the date, I am comfortable. Chances are that I have additional time to complete the work.

I also dislike unreasonable and arbitrary deadlines because they are difficult to take seriously and they can slip easily into the ever-changing deadline category. I suspect that many unreasonable or arbitrary deadlines are meant to instill a sense of priority or urgency. However, when faced with one of these types, I have little motivation to complete the project on time; subconsciously, I have already decided that the deadline will change. I have to force myself to take the deadline seriously until one of two things happens: the project is completed on time or the timeline changes. When faced with one of these types, I like to ask the responsible person why that particular date was set if it is not obvious to me. If I understand why a specific timeframe was chosen, I will be more motivated to get the task done by that date.

Of course, some projects have no deadline, which can be the best situation for some folks. Having no deadline doesn’t put pressure on creativity and gives us a chance to polish the end product. My problem with having no deadline is that I am a perfectionist, and given as much time as I need to complete a task, I will perform round after round of revision. As some point, I realize that the law of diminishing returns comes into play and the amount of effort I am expending is not worth the slight improvement to the end product, and yet my urge to continue to review and revise is still strong. I often need that deadline to signal an endpoint.

What types of deadlines do you encounter? I’d love to hear what classifications you would add to this crude taxonomy and how you deal with them.

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

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