I love deadlines. Really, I do. Is it because I love to work? I’d much rather play. Is it because I like crossing things off my to-do list? Well, yes, though if doing so involves work, then not so much. The reason I love deadlines is because I would be lost without them. And I hate being lost.
I have a long list of successes on my resume, though I am a procrastinator, a fact that often leaves me heavily burdened with an anxiety caused by the combination of listlessness and stress. But if it were not for deadlines, I’m sure I would never do anything that actually requires deep thought and concentration, wasting my talents and abilities in the daily minutia of keeping up.
Despite my affliction, I love learning and reading and any kind of word puzzles, art, and writing. I’ve always loved school and that continued into college. In addition to my coursework, and perhaps more so, what turned me on was reaching milestones as I went: crossing off the classes I attended, passing a midterm, finishing a course.
Checking the student handbook to track my progress became a tangible way to see how many credits I needed to graduate, which classes I had to take when, and when each semester began and ended. I loved receiving a syllabus the first day of class and deciphering how long I had until the first test, the final, and the next break! That way I could schedule my time, mark my calendar, and have concrete things that I could cross off my list toward a goal.
In college, except for in the case of an emergency, when a semester ends, it ends, it’s over. If you don’t show up for the final and you’re not on life support in a hospital somewhere, you’re out of luck. Having these strict deadlines allowed me to work toward small manageable goals and each time I accomplished one I felt stronger, smarter, more capable, and more confident to achieve the next. At first I finished one class, then one semester, then a year. Before I knew it I not only had my bachelors, but a masters, both of which I passed with flying colors! Then something awful happened… I got a job.
I didn’t get just any old job, I got a job with a private company as a contractor to the United States intelligence community. As a contractor, or consultant, you work for a private company, and your client may be a government agency. You may be on site with that agency and the client boss tasks you, but you also have a company boss. For a young person it can be very confusing to navigate who’s in charge, who you take orders from, what are your priorities, and how you manage your time. For your client you may be just another employee, but for your company you are also in business development, urged to create jobs to do for your client.
As a new young contractor I worked for a company and had two different clients that I would go see every day spending the morning with one client and the afternoon with another. So, essentially, I had three bosses and three related, but different missions. And no one helped me in a way that actually, well, helped!
It was my job to figure out what kind of projects my customers needed, design those projects, and create a schedule for work and delivery. My company bosses kept asking me for a project deadline. I would think and think and try to figure out exactly what it was I was supposed to be doing and then how on earth I was supposed to draft a schedule for this project and when would be a reasonable expectation for it to be delivered, but I didn’t even know what my clients really needed or wanted — and how could I? I had no experience and no one modeled to me how to figure it out.
Defeated, I could no longer put off the inevitable, and I admitted to my company boss that I was lost, lost in time, without a deadline and without the necessary understanding to create one. Then she told me something that changed my world: She told me that in government and sometimes in private industry that deadlines are not absolute. Coming from academia, this was a completely foreign concept to me. In school, classes begin in September and you have so many weeks to complete the coursework and take the final. End of discussion. But apparently in matters of national security, delivery schedules are a little bit more flexible. And if the government is the party setting the deadline, good luck with that! I came to learn that when dealing with the government, expect the delivery date of never and anything before never, consider early!
When providing a product to government, and anyone for that matter, I now set a deadline that I believe is reasonable. I’ve learned that if after every attempt to meet that deadline I find that the deadline is unrealistic, I can work with the client to adjust the delivery schedule reasonably. In most cases, that is acceptable. This blew my mind and to be honest, there’s still a part of it that blows my mind today. I do just about everything to meet a deadline, and rarely do I come up short, which sadly, seems to be the exception in business, not the rule. But now I understand that many business people are accustomed to changing deadlines, which has allowed me to create deadlines, even when I’m not 100% sure what I’m doing; I can figure it out along the way–and I do!
*Jessica Johnson is a social media consultant, writer, teacher, fashionista, and anti-human trafficking activist. She is currently focused on promoting ethical fashion, and works as as a fashion and brand management consultant for her companies EtreFaire and Trafficklight Consulting. She’d love you to share with her on Twitter at @etrefairshop, @Trafficklight, or @Jessica_in_NOVA; on Pinterest at EtreFaire (http://pinterest.com/etrefaire/?d) and at Jessica Johnson (http://pinterest.com/trafficklight/?d); or email her at email@example.com.