So, I have been sick the entire week. It started off a crappy cold for the weekend, then I took Monday mostly off, then Tuesday I tried to function normally (because, hey, I already took a day off, what else do you want from me?!?!) and realized that this shit was just getting started, then spent Wednesday and today pretty miserable. I think that now I can downgrade clearing my sinuses to just a part time job, which means I am going to try to get some dissertation stuff done tomorrow. Unfortunately, all one can really do is just pick up where one left off, and try not to freak out about the fact that you are now a week behind whatever imaginary schedule you had laid out for yourself.
And the schedules ARE imaginary.
Last February I made an honest to God, all out effort to meet a self imposed deadline. I have never been able to meet them. Literally, never. Hard deadlines I always make, of course. But these schedules and calendars of tasks I swear I will do by such and such a date, it just does not happen.
So, back to February 2014. I was going to finish revising an article before a family trip. I decided I would simply treat it like a real deadline, and do whatever it took to meet it. If it meant letting other things slide as the deadline approached, fine. If that meant an all-nighter, fine. Basically, just make it a “hard” deadline in my mind and act accordingly.
It did not work. The article seemed to multiply as I got closer to the deadline. I was stressed. Stuff that shouldn’t have taken very long was taking forever. It was like it had a half life–no matter how long or how much I worked on it, I felt like I was only really halfway done. I was constantly cataloging what I had done and what else I was going to do and how long it would take. I got very stressed, was really beating myself up about it, and just became a more and more dysfunctional academic writer. And I STILL didn’t meet that deadline. I ended up having to set it aside altogether and didn’t submit the damn thing until August (as Erin predicted, by the way).
For whatever fucked up psychological reason, I simply can’t deal with self-imposed deadlines. Even just run of the mill, real deadlines are not the greatest thing, but I have over the years learned to cope to the point that I generally don’t get that stressed or thrown off by deadlines (I am generally talking grant applications, when I get thrown into the brave new world of job applications, my coping abilities might get stretched to the max).
So I decided that self imposed deadlines simply don’t work, they cause more damage than not, and even if it is some kind of huge personal failing, I gave it my all and it still didn’t work, so I’m done with them.
My new system is to basically block off chunks of the calendar to dedicate to certain writing projects. For example, I have until the Thanksgiving-zone to work on chapter 4. Will I try to finish it? Yes. Will I try to approximate the appropriate pace and amount of material and length, etc, for it to pass as a completed draft? Yes. But I can’t guarantee it. And I don’t have to because no one really gives a fuck. By that time, I will have something that I call “chapter 4” and then I will move on to the next writing task (revising chapter 3, maybe), and so on, and I will just keep doing that until the real deadline. When there is a real deadline, I know I will have a “done” dissertation, because I can meet REAL deadlines. But anything else is fiction so I might as well keep working in the most productive manner I know how (just keep going on this massive work in progress with no real stopping points) up until I need to read the thing and make sure there are no sentence fragments or parentheticals telling me to look something up.
There are a few advantages to this system, for me. It means I don’t spend an indefinite amount of time on a writing project. If it is not done during that time I blocked off, it just isn’t done and I’ll have to come back to it later. I spent months and months, ok years, really on an article, because I was always “almost done” with it. When in reality, I wasn’t ready to be done with it, didn’t have enough perspective on it to really wrap it up, and just wasted a ton of time continuing to work on it. I dedicated a month to chapter 3. Was it a good draft? No. Was it even finished? No. But I had something. And when I sat back down with it, it was easy to make a plan for revision and see what did and did not need to be there, and I am optimistic about it overall. If I had held onto it until it was “done,” I would probably still be working on it, have less perspective on the thing, and be FREAKING out because it a week into November and I would not have started on chapter 4. I have a lot of unexpected shit come up–for instance, being sick this week–and I can’t feel like the world is coming to and end every time I get some work days shaved off. I was sick this week, but I am sticking to my original time block for chapter 4. I realized I tend to get things done in iterations, and trying to force myself into some state of completion artificially is a mess. Also, I think this actually is closer to how academia operates. Deadlines are a huge feature of academic life–but how many of them are real? Grants, jobs, and grades. That’s it. Maybe the day you give a conference talk. Everything else, books and articles, the major projects that build your career, is pretty fluid.
It has yet to be seen if I will complete a defendable, good enough dissertation on time.