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Does deadline juice give you wings?

Sorry that’s a Red Bull joke.

In this post, I’m talking about the power of deadlines to help you focus, work fast, and get things done. This is a strategy many people use, but also kind of feel guilty about. If you are neuro-divergent, this strategy may be one of the most effective for you, if and when it works.

“Deadline juice” is a term I just made up when talking to a student the other day, but it’s pretty apt. It describes the eustress response to an upcoming deadline—a healthy (yes short term appropriate stress responses are healthy!) jolt of adrenaline when your energy is up, your focus is up, your speed is up. It’s great and productive. Then you hand your work in, and celebrate. Afterwards, you need to have a solid break: maybe a nap, definitely some food, maybe go to the gym and burn off the rest of that buzz, or crash on the sofa and zone out for a bit with some cozy telly.

Without deadlines, everything just sits around until we magically feel motivated to work on things. That does happen, but only for stuff we care about. I would never do my taxes if there wasn’t a deadline, for example. Deadlines also help me to see what is coming up, what I need to prioritise, when other people need things by… it makes me feel like I want to get the work done and ticked off.

In other words, deadlines are motivating, energising and socially valuable.

Like caffeine, people’s tolerance for ‘deadline juice’ will vary. Some people find even a whiff of deadline juice will get them feeling jittery, so getting to work long before the due date makes them feel better. If that’s you, it’s awesome you know yourself!

Other people can comfortably drink 3-4 cups of coffee in a day with no ill effects. In a comparative way, they may also feel most energised and focussed when they are submitting work right at the deadline. As long as it’s in on time, it’s awesome you know yourself!

Where relying on ‘deadline juice’ all goes wrong is when:

  • you misjudge how big a task is, and starting right before the deadline means you way overshoot it and are super late
  • you get tired or run down, and the deadline juice no longer works, or doesn’t work well enough to overcome your exhaustion
  • you spend too much energy listening to people who like to get started early, then feel bad about not starting, waste lots of time on shame and regret, and are unproductively exhausted by the time the deadline hits.

So if you love that deadline juice, how can you avoid these issues?

Track your productivity. I know that before I can hand 10,000 words to a supervisor or co-author, I need 8 weeks of research, 3 intensive days of writing, 10 days’ break, and 3 days to edit. This means my true deadline to start writing is 2 weeks before the agreed date. This is not a fake deadline to get me to start work early, it’s 100% the best I can possibly do. I know from experience I cannot write faster. This therefore gives me the same jolt as realising that if I don’t run, I will miss my tram.

If I am going to plan to need to run for the tram, I better be fit and wearing sensible shoes too. When I’ve twisted my ankle, have a stomach ache, or am wearing heels, I know I need to adjust my timings. I am still absolutely fine to walk to the tram, but I do need to give myself a bit of extra time. And if I’m more injured or more sick, I really shouldn’t be leaving the house. Deadline juice is just motivation and speed, it’s not magic or medicine.

The point at which you notice the deadline juice isn’t doing it for you anymore, you should look around and see what else is going on. You may need to address your stress, mental health, burnout, workload, caring responsibilities, or physical wellbeing, and prioritise that for a time.

Finally, don’t bring this exhaustion and distress onto yourself. I started talking about “deadline juice” to undergrads who were feeling bad about starting a 1,000 word essay the day before it was due (though they got it in on time with outstanding results). Or they were sabotaging their natural response to deadline juice by basing their time-management strategies on other people’s incompatible preferences, to the point of making themselves sick and distressed.

Fake deadlines, starting early, or spreading the task out only works for people who prefer to avoid deadline juice, or only enjoy it in small quantities. You don’t get extra points for completing work early. No-one who is marking can even see you working, so you don’t even get presenteeism points the way you do in the office. There is no moral benefit to starting or finishing early. Be a ‘spreader’ if that works for you, but it’s okay if you are a last-minute ‘stacker’ instead. (Yes ‘deadline juice’ is another value-free term for something that should just be seen as a random preference but that is instead wielded as a moral judgment.)

Most of all, for those who enjoy imbibing, deadline juice is fun, and adds the sparkle back to time and task management and self-reflection. Know who you are, enjoy your juice, and now let’s get that thesis finished.

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