If you can’t meet a deadline…

Often you’ll find that you set up a deadline (or your supervisor sets one up) and then things happen. Soon, the deadline is only days away and it’s going to be near impossible for you to meet it. So what can you do?

The first thing you need to do, is be honest with yourself that the deadline is not going to be reached. If you continue to fool yourself into thinking you can reach it, then it’ll become a bigger deal when the deadline arrives and you still aren’t finished. Also, at this point, you’ll probably find yourself sleep deprived, which won’t help you finish any faster.

Once you’ve made peace (as much as you can) with yourself, the next step is to talk with whoever set the deadline and figure out a new solution. The sooner you realize a deadline is unachievable, the sooner you can work towards setting a more reasonable and realistic deadline, which can greatly reduce your stress levels. Also, if a deadline involves meeting with another person, it’s better for their schedule if they know earlier that the meeting time is no longer going to be ideal. Giving them a heads up allows them to rearrange their schedule.

There are many reasons why you may be unable to meet a deadline. Some are a more valid excuse than others.

  1. It turns out the solution you were going to try is not going to succeed – no matter how much work/time you put into it. Instead of holding off until the deadline, it’s better to have this discussion sooner, and come up with a different solution to try, or rework the problem. If you wait until it was originally due to say that it was impossible, all that says is that it took you the whole time to figure out how hard the problem was – which doesn’t look as favourably on you as it does to approach your supervisor as soon as you know this.
  2. The task is much bigger than expected and no longer fits the timeframe. Often, when working on a research project or problem other problems will pop up along the way and need to be solved. Sometimes these require a quick solution, but other times they become a big problem on their own. In the second case, they can add a lot of extra time to your project.
  3. Other projects get moved up the priority list. Sometimes you’ll be working on multiple projects/problems and depending on stuff like conference deadlines, what one is most important will constantly change. In these cases, when you’re setting competing deadlines, remember to bring all of them into the discussion so you can decide right then if you should change any of them around to meet the new circumstances.
  4. Real life gets in the way. Let’s be honest, this happens to everyone at some point or the other. And sometimes it’s a valid excuse (like a family emergency) and sometimes it’s not (playing video games all weekend). In the first case, it’s always a good idea to let your supervisor know if there’s an emergency. They’ll normally be very lenient in making sure you have time to go and deal with the situation as needed. In the second case, well, you really need to reexamine your priorities and figure out why this happened. I don’t support lying to your supervisor, but I also don’t recommend telling them that you didn’t finish your work because you felt like playing games instead.
  5. Getting sick – which probably falls under the real life heading as well. But getting sick can only be controlled so much. In these cases, if it’s going to affect a deadline, let them know as soon as you are sick enough to be out of commission. If you wake up and know you are in no shape to work, take a couple of minutes (or have someone do this for you) and send off a quick email saying “I’m sick. I won’t be able to attend the meeting/finish the paper today.”

One of the biggest things you can do for yourself is to remind yourself that this stuff happens and it’s not the end of the world. Some deadlines are more important than others, and therefore you’ll find you will constantly need to be re-working your scheduled and deciding each day what’s most important.

On this note, I have a deadline that I’m going to struggle to reach and it’s time I give a heads up to the rest of the group.


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