Cosy up to your pal the deadline

April 20, 2007

Are you struggling to get all your tasks completed on time? Kevin Fong runs through the rules of relativity that govern the way we work

They're out there somewhere; lurking, unseen, silent and deadly. They're a permanent haunting feature in our lives. Sometimes they keep us up at night. Sometimes they spring out of nowhere and ruin a day. I'm talking about deadlines.

Taking advice from someone like me on this subject is like listening to a reading from Ghenghis Khan's guide to world peace and tribal harmony. I have two approaches to deadlines: either I miss them or crash headlong into them. But good time management is worth its weight in gold, and there is apparently a skill to making deadlines work for you rather than against you.

The first rule is not to ignore them. Having that "To Do" list in front of you often feels like looking at the radar screen on a big ship with a small rudder in an ocean full of icebergs: it tells you that you're in really big trouble but doesn't make things any better. But simply pretending that they're not there is much worse, and as I sit here writing this column at 4.32am, rapidly taking on water, I'm learning that lesson the hard way.

I should at this point also introduce you to the Special Theory of Deadline Relativity. Albert Einstein, as well being inexplicably bad at combing his hair, also ignored the fact that deadlines too have the ability to warp space and time. This common but poorly understood phenomenon was first observed by Fong et al while attempting to mark an impossibly large number of final examination scripts before the external examiners' meeting in 2006. It refers to the superhuman increase in efficiency one experiences when uncomfortably close to a really big deadline.

So the First Law of Deadline Relativity is that your overall productivity is inversely proportional to the length of time before the deadline arises. This is important for us to understand and has far-reaching consequences.

It means that, contrary to popular belief, there really is no point in being organised. Tackling a task three weeks before the thing needs to be done gets you nowhere because everything takes ten times as long to complete. Experts now believe that trying to get stuff completed in a timely fashion actually creates an invisible black hole around your head into which all your professional energy falls, never to be seen again.

There are hazards associated with working too close to too many deadlines. This is referred to as "The P45 Effect", which describes the steep downward slope in your career trajectory that can occur when four or five important unseen deadlines are encountered simultaneously.

There are some people who like to treat deadlines as though they were friends with whom they can have meaningful relationships. When everybody else in the office is off for a sociable beer at the end of the day, these irritating people say: "Can't come, I've got a deadline I've got to meet."

They go home and nestle up to their deadlines with a warm cup of cocoa and a personal digital assistant setting priority ratings, synchronising diaries and suchlike. Frankly, I find that sort of behaviour unnatural and disgusting. In my view, deadlines are an inescapable fact of life. They prod us into action, they make us better, stronger and faster. Let's face it, without them nothing would ever get done. Actually, maybe deadlines are our friends, after all. Now, where did I put my PDA?

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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