You and writing deadlines: BFFs or toxic frenemies?

Published by Dr Peta Freestone on

Ever missed a writing deadline?

Missed one in the past few months? Maybe even a few of them?

Crucially, have any of these been self-imposed deadlines?

If so, it’s probably time to reassess your relationship with your writing targets.

In the early days of a long-form writing project (and particularly for a PhD), it’s easy to shrug off tasks as they dozily hum in the background like fuzzy bumble bees. They can be rescheduled. There’s weeks, months, even years, left on this journey. You’ll pick up the slack later. It’ll be fine.

But even for the chilled-out crew (of which, dear reader, I am not a card-carrying member—alas), there’ll come a time when things get serious. The clock’s a’tickin’ on candidature, scholarships, visas, publications, job applications and, well, on all that ‘life stuff’ that continues to happen while you tackle your major writing project.

Those tasks that were once cute bumble bees have been replaced with a nest of wasps. Angry wasps. Furious sting-machines dive-bombing you from all directions.

So what do you do?

You set some deadlines.

This could go so many ways. But for the sake of brevity, here’s two at each end of the spectrum:

  1. You and your deadlines have a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship, where you both feel confident in each other. You address minor setbacks swiftly and your relationship recovers, even strengthens. Step-by-step, you work together to progress your thesis or other major writing project until it sprouts wings and flies off (wasp-free) into the happily-ever-achieved sunset.
  1. You and your deadlines seem to start off on the right foot—everything is so exhilarating and rewarding that you rush headlong into making all sorts of plans before you’ve considered your other commitments. But after those first heady days, things begin to change. Due dates swing by and you find yourself standing your deadlines up. The first time, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But the second occasion? And the third? Before you know it, every time you bump into your deadlines, you can’t bear the way they glare at you all Judgy-McScornful-like, making you feel even more terrible for not holding up your end of the bargain. Guilt starts to weigh you down, possibly so much that you start going well out of your way to avoid facing your deadlines. Things might get so toxic that you want to give up on your major writing project altogether.

If your relationship with deadlines sounds anything like the second scenario (or you’ve ever felt elements of it creeping into a major writing project), you’ve probably developed some unhelpful habits when it comes to goal-setting. I know I did during my PhD, and many people share similar experiences with me when I run Thesis Boot Camps and other writing workshops.

Why is it so important to avoid this toxic scenario?

In the first instance, it’s stressful. And while deadlines can be a way for us to induce short-term ‘good stress’ to help us perform at our best (like my friend Dr Katherine Firth talks about here), being chronically stressed over sustained periods does not help complete a major writing project—it hinders it. And, as is becoming more widely and openly acknowledged—including in a study released earlier this year—undertaking a PhD in contemporary academia can be chronically stressful in itself.

On top of the other stressors PhD students face, psychologists have long known that certain goal-setting behaviours can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression. When I was designing Thesis Boot Camp back in 2012, I approached psychology researcher Dr Helen Street (then an Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia) who had been studying this phenomenon for years in a variety of groups, including PhD students. I learned from Helen’s work that the link between goal-setting styles and mental health could become particularly problematic when we place conditions on what happens if we do or don’t achieve those goals (‘I’ll be happy when I finish x’; ‘I’ll avoid disaster if I achieve y’).

Since, I’ve observed again and again that setting deadlines and missing them over an extended period of time leaves students frustrated at best, and at worst frightened that they won’t be able to finish their thesis. That’s when those other horrible ‘f’ words creep in, like ‘fraud’ and ‘failure’. And I’ve witnessed the same thing in people tackling long-form fiction or non-fiction writing projects beyond academia.

In short?

Setting yourself deadlines can be motivating and provide structure and discipline to finish a major writing project. Short-term, realistic goals that are regularly achieved can be incredibly empowering.

However, setting yourself writing goals that you often don’t achieve can do more harm than good—to your project, and to your mental health.

Obviously, we don’t consciously set ourselves up to miss targets! Unhelpful goal-setting habits arise for myriad reasons: the desire for a sense of achievement or control from completing projects sooner rather than later. Wanting to impress or placate others. Good intentions to be proactive about managing our writing projects, but without the tools to accurately factor in all the variables. The list goes on.

For whatever reason, if you’re experiencing missed-deadline-stress, I urge you to examine the way you set your writing targets, or any other milestones you have the ability to negotiate. It could make a big improvement to how you feel about your writing, and have a positive influence on your day-to-day wellbeing (which in turn helps your writing projects!).

Not sure where to start?

Stay tuned for a series of blog posts in which I’ll share practical tips and techniques for planning and managing a major writing project—in a way that ensures deadlines will remain your BFFs, rather than becoming toxic frenemies.