How to manage a (paper) deadline - 9 rules (to rule them all)

The last couple of weeks have been fraught with a paper deadline. My second one. Times have been stressful. The paper involved starting up from scratch, learning a new programming language, and how to work a robotic arm all in less than one and a half month. One of the realizations I had was that setting up some rules of conduct was necessary to manage the amount of stress and imperative for success. So I put up these nine rules:

1. Get good sleep
If you are tired you cannot think. If you cannot think you will not progress unless you are doing some repetitive task; so you might as well go home and sleep.

2. Get good sleep
There I said it again.

When you are tired everything move slower. Writing goes slower. Going to the gym becomes a drag. Meetings become a pain. You become grumpy. Your partner will get irritated by the fact that on top of you being in the lab all the time you are also being grumpy; that is if your not dating someone in the lab.

3. Get good sleep
Seriously, if you are tired and all your experiments fail everything will suck. If you are not tired the world will suck a bit less. Paper deadlines are more dependent on progress to sustain a feeling of momentum to make you put up with the stress. If things are not working out, as they should pressure will pile up. Performing research under stress and high pressure is usually not productive.

4. Stop drinking coffee
We all enjoy a good cup of java but hey during a deadline everyone has a tendency to become coffee junkies and coffee monsters. Too much coffee stresses you out if you’re under stress. Switch to tea. Days of stress I just drink green tea.

5. Reduce intensity of exercise but increase the frequency
Most of your energy goes into thinking and working during a paper deadline. Therefore it is important to take regular breaks. The best breaks involve some kind of physical activity. I intentionally reduce the intensity of my exercise schedule during deadlines and instead increase the frequency; going the gym for about an hour every day. It helps me refocus and relax without getting tired. And I came out of this deadline more fit than I was before. Further on while my colleagues started looking stressed - burned out sipping giant jugs of coffee - I still was fresh and relaxed.

5. Take social breaks
Just sitting in the lab day after day will get you momentum but it will also leave you increasingly blind to the obvious. Your mind needs time to recharge. Social breaks will let you relax and take your mind of work. Getting totally wasted on the week of the deadline might not be recommendable but going out for a nice dinner or a glass of wine certainly helps. Despite the hours you loose you will gain it in the pure momentum you get the next day when you go the lab remembering there is actually a life out there.

6. Give yourself a present every day
I think this quote from Twin Peaks sums it up well - "Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it, don’t wait for it, just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair or two cups of good hot black coffee.” Basically to lessen the stress let yourself enjoy some good moments during the day. Buy a carrot cake muffin for breakfast, enjoy a long lunch, or take a sauna after the gym.

7. If work is going terrible take a day off
This might sound counter productive but when in deadline mode momentum is the most important thing you have. If you stop moving forward and feel frustrated, stressed, and in general lousy, getting out and doing something completely else might be the solution. My recent deadline was extended for a week. The moment I heard of the extension I closed my laptop and went to a nice dinner with my girlfriend and slept in the next day. Coming back to work it was like the deadline just had started. A fresh reboot.

8. Switch working environment
We all know that switching environment helps when working on a problem. The solution comes to us as we are biking home, jogging in the forest, trying to go to sleep i.e. doing something completely different from working somewhere completely different from your cubicle. During the last deadline I took two papers I wanted to read for the paper I was working on and went to a nice cafe, ordered an Americano and a carrot cake, and got to work. I came up with so many ideas in that hour that it generated two pages of text in the final submission. The ratio of work to output was thus extremely big. I realized I should do this more often.

9. Eat good
Eating frozen supermarket food for lunch, grabbing a sandwich with some crisps in the cafeteria, eating candy instead of lunch or skipping it all together to work is counter productive. Get yourself good cooked food with lots of fibers and greens. This of course should be an everyday virtue but hey we are just humans. However keeping this habit during deadline work will make you feel less like a dreaded monster loaded with sugar, fat, and caffeine.

Related pop psychology validating the rules...

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