Hi there! Mole here, sitting outside on a warm, blue, sunny Sunday. Sunday comes from the Old English, Sunnandæg, a Germanic take on the Latin, Dies Solis. Sun's Day. Just a coincidence, really; it will rain tomorrow I'm sure. As you can see, I'm trying to avoid further work. And that's a shame (not really!), since another deadline just went past. As Douglas Adams famously said in his wonderful The Salmon of Doubt, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” And there it goes. Whoosh! Then again, I came in way under the deadline on something else today, so that's something.
By deadline, I am of course referring to the time when something comes due, usually something that has to be submitted in some way (but of course, not always). This use of the word in this sense probably arose in the 1920s in the newspaper business, where it was the time at which a reporter's story had to be sent in to be edited and printed for the next day. Prior to that, printers spoke of the dead-line on the printing press, beyond which the print would not appear. But before that, the dead-line has a very different meaning, first coming into use in the U.S. Civil War in the mid-1860s. It referred to a line in a prison camp, beyond which a prisoner would be shot. Yikes. I am particularly glad that this isn't the case when I go past my deadlines, although I know some editors who would probably like it to be so.
Nevertheless, deadlines are a major source of stress in this thing we do, this biomedical research business. (At least, it's what I do; maybe you're just reading this because it was sitting on a friend's desk. Trust me, deadlines are a source of stress for us.) And in my apparently unending quest to reduce stress in my life (I'm not a complete failure at this – I could be way more stressed out), I've come up with a few ways to handle deadlines. So, I thought I'd share.
There are many sorts of deadlines we face, and we can classify them into categories. I define five types of deadlines: hard, hard-ish, soft-ish, soft, and non. These aren't very good names, I know, but you'll see what I mean.
Hard deadlines are the ones we cannot miss without consequences. When I plan to submit a grant, there is an absolute deadline as to when the funding agency must receive it if it is to be considered. Miss this one, and I have to wait for another funding cycle to submit. Sure, the real consequence of this is that I have to wait longer for the ultimate rejection, but at least by making the deadline I have a chance. But when I submit a grant, there is also a hard-ish deadline: my institution demands that I have the finished grant to them 10 working days before the hard deadline, apparently so that they can keep it around until the panicked emails on the day it is due. That's why this one is hard-ish; if I tell them that it will be a couple of days late, I can get away with it. But if I'm too late, and there are problems, it might not go in by the real deadline. Hard-ish.
So, with these sorts of deadlines, I set to work long before the deadline looms. In the case of grants, I'm talking about a couple of months. I outline, re-outline, think, outline again, come up with experiments we'll probably need to show feasibility, do them (okay, ask the Molets to do them), draft and draft and draft. Give drafts to colleagues (now weeks before the deadline), revise, and continue until I'm more or less happy with it. Oh, and I get all the little stuff (descriptions of the lab and equipment, certifications, assurances, letters of collaboration) as early as possible. I don't want to leave these to the very end, when I'm more likely to need to rewrite some sections of what will make or break the decision. As disorganized as I generally am, I'm pretty organized when it comes to writing grants. Because if I'm not, I'm going to face some major stress, and it's all about reducing major stress.
There's another sort of hard-ish deadline that we should talk about. It's the one that journals give us when we agree to review a paper. These are hard-ish, because if things come up that necessitate a delay of a few days then the journal editors are generally pretty okay with that. But again, there are consequences of letting these whoosh by. We have all been enormously frustrated when we do not receive a decision on a paper because reviewers have ignored their deadlines. And this isn't okay; when pestered, the reviewers will be in terrible moods and will not appreciate, even enjoy, our beautiful work. So yeh, I'm pretty organized about these. Until, of course, the editors remind me that I had completely forgotten about one of them, and then I do it immediately (while trying not to be cranky; see above).
So, what is a soft deadline? An example of a soft deadline might be the deadline a journal sets for a review article they have asked me to write. If (when) I miss the deadline, they set a new one. After we do this a few times, I generally get down to finishing it (whereupon we go through another set of soft deadlines as to when I'll have any necessary revisions). So. Soft. Maybe soft-ish.
But there is another type of deadline that I find harder to characterize. This is the deadline I set myself when I write a paper. Since I'm actually in control of the deadline, I could consider it soft, but then I might not write the paper (and therefore not submit it) when I want to. Most of us consider this sort of thing soft-ish; we want to get it done, but stuff happens (such as when we collectively decide that we need another experiment done). On the other hand, getting the paper written when years of work have gone into the research should be a higher priority, especially if we consider that there may be others who have similar findings who are meeting their deadline. So. Hard-ish.
Finally, there are all the things that are non-deadlines. Like, I think I'll write a Mole column (okay, you probably don't have this on your list, but hey, you can write me a letter!). Here's another: ‘I really should read that paper when I get a chance.’ Or even, ‘I really should spend a few hours reading and catching up.’ As non-deadlines, these tend to get pushed aside as actually deadlines approach and then whoosh by. There is just so much to do. But here's the thing: reading the literature is of paramount importance for our successful execution of what we do, this biomedical research thing. Without it, we lose momentum, we re-invent the wheel, we give up the opportunity to creatively engage in the science we want to do. In short, we fail. Are these really non-deadlines?
With all of these hard, hard-ish, soft-ish, and soft deadlines, it is easy to lose sight of what we are really trying to do: discover stuff. As Bill Nye (the science guy) once said, “Science is the best idea humans have had.” I know that there are just so many hours in a day, and some things (eating, sleeping, binge-watching Mr. Robot) take up all of the time that we do not spend meeting our deadlines. And reducing stress by ticking off the to-do list is important. But so is spending some time reading and thinking, without which we are just ‘phoning it in.’
Speaking of which, I have some papers to read. It's gotten cloudy anyway, and there's a chill in the air. Oops, and the wind just picked up. Whoosh!