How to be Successful: Give Timelines

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

I ask my wife to do a surprising number of projects.  Occasionally research projects, but more often household ones like, “Can you figure out if Arcadia Power covers us and how to sign up with them?” and “Can you book lodging for our next trip?”  Early in our relationship, I assumed these would be done immediately, even if I didn’t need the task completed for another two weeks. Once she made it clear that it was easier for her to complete these tasks if she knew when I expected her to finish it, everything was much easier for both of us.

I started applying this principle to co-workers and anyone whom I needed a response from and it translated into a significant improvement in response rate.  Since the way I work, I respond very quickly to asks for work, I assumed everyone else prioritized their work similarly. I came to understand that many people work on the basis of deadlines- they work on projects which have the earliest deadlines first.  I still don’t quite fully understand it, but I use the principle, and I recommend you do, too.

Providing deadlines tells the recipient a few things.  One, it tells them that their input is _required_. It is easy for people to read an email and think, “Ah, well, they are asking me, but maybe it is a courtesy or just to be complete.  I don’t need to reply.” Putting a deadline indicates you need a response from everyone involved. Two, it helps people prioritize their to-do list according to what is most pressing. Three, it gives some sense of the amount of work/effort is required.  If you give a deadline by the end of the week to most academics, it should be an _extremely_ time sensitive matter or something they can answer quickly. If you give a deadline 3-6 weeks away, that suggests you want them to actually contemplate and think about the response, and give a substantive one.

I use a variety of strategies when providing deadlines.  I have the opt-out deadline, which is usually framed as, “This is what I am going to do unless I hear from anyone by X date.”  This is usually when I don’t need input from others and am including them as a courtesy, and because if they DO have strong feelings, I want to know about it.

I have the opt-in with a specific solution short-term deadline, which is framed as, “Here is what I would like to send.  Please chime in with your feedback by X date.” This sends a message that I want and need their feedback. The feedback I expect to get, because of the short timeline (less than 1 week), is usually something like, “OK” or “No, I think we should make this minor change.”  This is often done at the end of a process, where I have already solicited more complex responses.

I have the opt-in with a specific solution long-term deadline, which is framed as, “Here is the current draft.  Please review and provide suggestions by X date.” This date is usually the end of the month or some similar 3-6 week window.  I want and need constructive, thoughtful, cognitively complex input for this, and know that it needs to fit into others’ schedules.  Nonetheless, providing a timeline is helpful so people can put it into their own to-do list framework.

Finally, I have the opt-in optional with a very long-term deadline, which is framed as, “I know you’re busy, and I am working on this project.  Please let me know if you want to participate by X date.” That date is usually 2-6 months into the future, as this is a placeholder for a project or an attempt to determine who may be interested in a novel project.  In this case, I am not expecting much thoughtful contribution, but providing the far deadline allows me to determine who is Actually Interested and who is not. Those who are interested will reply relatively early. Those who are not interested will never reply.

Giving deadlines can be useful at all levels of your veterinary career.  Undergraduate progressing to vet school, “Dear Dr. X, here-is-a-letter-asking-you-to-write-a-letter-of-recommendation-for-me.  Please let me know if you would be able and willing to write a letter for me by (some reasonable date at least 2 weeks away).”  Veterinary student interested in an internship, “Dear Internship Director, I would love the opportunity to speak with a current intern.  Please let me know if there is someone who can talk to me by (some reasonable date).” You can ask for deadlines from people who are higher “rank” than you as long as you are respectful and reasonable with the deadline.

There are many strategies to using deadlines.  Mine would not work in corporate America, where things are more time-sensitive.  Fortunately, in academia, we are usually working with relatively long timelines. Do you like getting deadlines or not? Do they help motivate you? How do you assign deadlines differently?

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