How to efficiently manage your multiple deadlines
(Last updated: 13 May 2021)
In a famous letter, Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, identified two certainties in life: death and taxes. If you’re a university student, you can add deadlines to this list. During your university career, you’ve probably experienced the slightly panicky feeling that happens when deadlines start to accumulate, and then snowball as November hits. With assignments large and small, essay plans, in-class tests, presentations: it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed by the number of deadlines you have to meet, and not knowing where to turn next. We’re not going to lie to you: the ability to manage multiple competing deadlines is a skill you’ll be learning your whole life. It is not something that can be mastered overnight. But you can set yourself on the right path by developing good habits from the very start! Read on for our tips on staying afloat in an ocean of deadlines…
Unless you’re blessed with an eidetic memory, you’ll need to find a means of scheduling your tasks clearly and logically. Ideally in a format that makes sense to you. A plan can be anything from a scrawled set of notes or a wall full of post-its to a state-of-the-art automated electronic calendar, but the main thing is to make your plan work for you. It should be something that you can reference easily and that you can trust the information on it.
Plan visually, and in 'analogue'
In an era when smartphones and tablets have taken calendars electronic, and there’s seldom any real need to write things down, it’s easy to overlook the power and immediacy of a big, non-digital calendar containing a list of all your tasks. While apps that track your time, tasks and deadlines are a godsend – and if you consult them often enough and keep them up-to-date and set timely reminders, it’s possible they’re all you’ll need. They have one major drawback: they’re far too easy to ignore. Let’s say an alert goes off while you’re in class, or at a bar with your friends. You acknowledge it; maybe you snooze it, or perhaps you dismiss it altogether. The rest of the time you keep the app running in the background but it generally remains invisible until it sounds its next alert.
- By task type: mark long essays (say, 1000 words or more) in one colour, short written assignments in another colour, in-class tests for which you need to prepare or revise in a third colour, online exercises you have to submit on a certain date in a fourth colour, and so on. This is a useful type of scheme because it gives you a rough idea of the size of each task, as well as just telling you it’s due. If you assign red to long assignments that are going to take quite a while to write, and you’ve got three red deadlines within a span of a week starting a month or so from now, you know you need to get to work on at least one of these immediately!
- By module: colour-coding your tasks by module helps to distinguish between your to-do items and avoid seeing an intimidating, undifferentiated mass of tasks on your calendar. This type of scheme won’t do much more than help your tasks be easy on the eye and less overwhelming at the start of the term, but it will come into its own once you’ve got a sense of how your modules are going. If you know assignments for one of your modules are particularly difficult, or always take more time than you think they will, you can adjust your planning accordingly. But be mindful not to fall into the trap of identifying, say, blue tasks as ones that are especially unpleasant, and start putting them off…
Whatever colour scheme you use, remember to reserve a couple of colours for non-academic items. If you’ve got fixed social events coming up – an arena show with friends, or a pre-arranged overnight trip, make sure you add them to your calendar. You might appear to have a big empty space between your two big essay assignments, but if you’re out of town for a chunk of this time you need to know you can’t use that time!
Add tasks to your plan as you get them
The key to effective deadline management isn’t just having all your tasks listed in one place. It is being able to fully trust and rely on your planning system. If you can’t glance at your calendar and know that it accurately reflects everything you’ve got to do and the dates by which you have to complete it, you’re going to end up in trouble sooner or later. And even if you use a fully automated planning system with lots of bells, whistles, and scheduled reminders, you need to give it reliable input so that it can do its work! The one area in which no planning tool, however robust, can help you is the simple act of entering your tasks in the first place. If your schedule doesn’t know what you’ve got to do, it can’t help you get it done!
So this is the one place in which you need to exercise absolutely impeccable discipline. The second you know about a deadline, add it to your wall calendar, your scheduling app, or both. That will often be at the very start of a module: read the outline, take a look at what assignments are required through the term, and add them. If smaller assignments are added later, make sure you’re diligent in noting it down and adding it to your calendar. Be proactive in looking for dates that likely won’t be finalised at the start of term, like exams or lab assessments. Add them to your calendar as soon as you know of their due date.
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At university, the chances are that you’ll be exposed to the challenges of multitasking either for the first time or to a far greater degree than previously. If you’re the kind of person who likes to diligently work through a to-do list one task at a time and check it off when you’re done, you may find it quite disconcerting to have multiple projects on the go at once. Here’s how you stay sane:
Understand and minimise context-switching
“Context switching” is a term derived from computing, where it refers to the need to save the state of an application or process that’s part-way through and resume it later from that state. A computer processor has finite resources, so when a processor-intensive task comes along that’s more important than whatever task it was running before, the computer has to save its progress on the less important task to memory and finish it later. As you’ll have seen when your laptop starts to “chug” because you’ve had it turned on for days and have all your Office programs plus forty-odd browser windows open, context-switching comes at a cost. The process of storing the progress of a task in memory consumes time and resources, as does the process of subsequently restoring the task from the point at which the computer left off. The analogy is a good one to apply to your brain, and it’s increasingly used by theorists of productivity to explain where our lost time goes when we’re multitasking.
If you’re new to multitasking and managing multiple deadlines, as many undergraduates are, context-switching is likely to be one of the main ways in which you lose time even when you feel like you’re working flat-out. Let’s say you’ve got three assignments due on the same day. You’re anxious about each one and you feel the need to make progress on all three. While working on one you get momentarily distracted by an idea for one of your other assignments that you were struggling with earlier. So you immediately minimise the window containing your first assignment, open up the second assignment, and decide you’re going to add in the thought you just had. Only before you do so you’ve got to remind yourself of the structure of that assignment,. Try skim-reading it to find the place where you want to insert your new idea. Once you’ve added to your second assignment, return to your first assignment, and reread that as well to remind yourself of where you were.
If you’re in the midst of multiple assignments, the chances are your unconscious brain is processing a lot of content that’s distinct from what you’re working on consciously at any given moment. This can be a really useful thing provided you know how best to keep on top of the mix of ideas that it keeps throwing at your conscious brain. But if you allow yourself to follow every thought right through to its conclusion the second it occurs to you, you’re going to work very inefficiently, even if all your interruptions are work-related. With disruptions caused by phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media notifications, it’s more than possible that you’ll never work on a single task for more than a few minute. Next thing you know you’re interrupted and have to use valuable “processing power” to remind yourself where you left off. Indeed, so taxing are the demands on us to repeatedly context-switch that, according to this fascinating blog post from the makers of productivity app Trello, we temporarily lose IQ points during bouts of heavy context-switching.
So how do you combat the context-switching impulse?
- Go into “offline mode” while working. Turn off your phone, disable email notifications, and do your best to minimise distractions for, say, 25 minute chunks of work (see the section on procrastination, below, for why this is a good number), and reward yourself with five minutes of online time after you’ve completed a work block.
- Keep a notepad beside you as you work and use it to jot down any ideas that come to you about tasks you’re not supposed to be working on at the moment. These notes will help jog your memory and ensure that valuable unconscious brain activity doesn’t go to waste, while minimising the “processor cost” of keeping your place in what you’re doing right now.
- Tackle any small, easy-to-complete tasks or stresses before you start work on a larger task. If your brain is nagged by small administrative things you need to get done, calls you need to make, or emails you need to send, these things are likely to distract you repeatedly and pull you away from your main task. Even if you have to spend a whole morning, afternoon, or evening dealing with small potential distractors before getting to that big chunk of work, you’ll be rewarded with a more productive and efficient environment when you do get to work. An important caveat, though: don’t go looking for small tasks that you can busy yourself with just so you can avoid having to tackle bigger, more challenging chunks of work!
Learn to identify saturation
Although unscheduled context-switching is taxing on your finite mental resources and will slow you down considerably, it’s important to recognise that you don’t always have to see one task through to completion before embarking on another. You might be familiar with the 80/20 rule, which suggests the first 20% of time we spend on a given task is where we get 80% of our useful work done (with the corollary that we spend the remaining 80% of our time doing the last 20% of the work!). This happens because, after spending a certain amount of time on a given task, we become saturated, and cease to be able to apply ourselves efficiently to this particular process. Saturation feels a lot like boredom, and indeed feeling bored or frustrated with a task you’ve been working on for a while can be a symptom of saturation. (It’s also perfectly possible that the task is just tedious.
If you’ve become saturated with a particular task, set it aside and focus on something else. Whether that’s a well-deserved break or tackling another task you need to start. If the new task is sufficiently dissimilar to the previous one, you should find that your mental saturation doesn’t carry over, and the new task enables you to “freshen up” mentally. Recognising and managing saturation (and distinguishing being legitimately unable to spend any more time on a task from simply not feeling like doing it) is one of the most important skills you can develop as you learn to multitask effectively. Saturation is also one of the main reasons to start work on your assignments well before they’re due. If you start work on an assignment that’s due tomorrow and reach saturation point, tough luck! You’re going to have to drag your sluggish brain to the finish line no matter how inefficiently it’s working.
Proactively plan task switching and downtime
Part of the art of mastering multitasking lies in being realistic about what you can and can’t do with your time. Although unplanned context-switching will hit your productivity hard, you should plan to switch regularly between tasks. Do not allow any one to consume you at the expense of the others. Plan to spend four unbroken hours on the same assignment and the chances are you’ll reach saturation point long before you reach the end of your allotted time.
Similarly, plan on working seven days straight without a day off anywhere in between and you’ll end up disappointing yourself, feeling inadequate, and possibly giving up on your plan entirely. Recognise that your brain will work best if you devote at most an hour or two to any given assignment (unless it’s due tomorrow, of course!) and stay fresh by moving over to another and coming back to the first assignment after a break, or the next day.
And if you decide not to work, make it a proactive decision. If you have a vague plan to work and don’t manage to get anything done, you’ll feel guilty and your time not working won’t have been put to good use. Make a positive decision to relax and let your hair down, and you’ll feel your downtime is an earned reward and go back to your work all the fresher for it.
You probably have a pretty good idea of what procrastination looks like, and that’s probably something like starting up your laptop to work on an assignment and then spending the morning surfing the web, looking at your social media feeds and posting on your Instagram account. But the key to minimising procrastinating behaviour is understanding that it takes many different forms, and that not all procrastination looks the same. Sebastian Bailey, the co-founder of the corporate productivity consultancy firm MindGym, identifies five different types of procrastination, among them complacency “that’s easy; I can always do it later”, avoiding discomfort, fear of failure, emotional state (“I’m just too stressed right now”), and action illusion.
This last form of procrastination is particularly worthy of note if you’re new to balancing multiple deadlines,. This is because it can lead us down a dangerous path even when we’re working diligently towards our goals – or at least we think we are. Action illusion procrastinators tell themselves work must be getting done because they’re working hard… on something. If you’ve got assignments due in four different modules it’s easy to tell yourself you’re working flat-out because you’ve done all the extra reading for one class, or because you keep polishing up an assignment you’ve really enjoyed working on, while other assignments sit there unstarted. Or you might spend all your time obsessively working and reworking your task plan without ever starting on the tasks themselves!
Forcing yourself to focus on the unpleasant stuff
Once you’ve identified where you’re procrastinating – whether it’s by avoiding work altogether or just focusing on the pleasantest tasks on your list – there are various ways you can discipline yourself, and force yourself to focus on tasks you really don’t want to face.
- Timed methods: There are numerous methods of tackling procrastination that advocate you allot a certain amount of time to an unpleasant task, and reward yourself with a break, or an opportunity to do something else.
- The popular Pomodoro method, originated in software development. It advocates working in blocks of 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break, with a longer break after every fourth working block.
- MindGym advocates a “strive for five” rule for exceptionally unpleasant tasks or those causing a substantial mental block. Spend just five minutes trying to get to grips with your task, then re-evaluate. After five minutes, decide if you’re going to continue. If the task still overwhelms you, come back later and spend another five minutes on it. If it now seems more manageable, spend another five minutes and re-evaluate again. The idea is that you’ll gradually pick up the momentum you need to spend longer on the task and get it done. Even if that takes a while you’ll chip away at it in five-minute increments.
- Rewards and incentives: Set yourself an achievable goal for a study period and reward yourself. Treat yourself to your favourite TV show, social media session, some gaming time, or a drink with friends – after you’ve completed it. This method works well if you can break down a task into clearly manageable chunks and have a good understanding of what constitutes progress.
- Visualisation: Visualise yourself in 24 hours’ time. How does that you feel having completed the task? Elated? Relieved? Unburdened? How does that same you feel having failed to complete the task? Frustrated? Anxious? Self-loathing? Doing the best for future-you can be a powerful way of working through your mental blocks and accomplishing unpleasant tasks!