Why I Stopped Using Due Dates (Or: An Exercise in Self-Delusion)

In Fall of 2009, when I began my PhD program, I told myself I’d graduate in Spring of 2012.

Pretty quickly, I realized that was wildly unrealistic. I could finish the required courses and pass the comprehensive exams in two years, but one year to research and write my dissertation? No way. Spring of 2013 seemed more realistic.

Research took longer than I expected. 2014.

Then writing took longer than I expected. I graduated in spring of 2015.

It took me 6 years, twice as long as I initially planned.

The above also meant that I didn’t complete one of my other goals until years later than I initially hoped: becoming a professor. I began applying in fall of 2015, hoping to land a gig for the following year.


So I tried again this past fall, 2016, hoping to have a contract signed by the end of the year.


Finally, in March of 2017, I signed the contract.

If I defined my goals of graduating and employment by specific end-dates, then I had major failures in each of:

  • 2012
  • 2013
  • 2014
  • 2015
  • 2016

That’s each of the past five years!

Heck, maybe it’s true. Maybe I am a failure.

But I prefer not to see it that way. Because, ultimately, I achieved what I set out to do. The road just happened to be much longer than it looked when I first began walking on it. Unless you’re flying overhead (metaphorical translation: seeing the future) , you often can’t see how long the road is. You just have to start walking.

To use another, less obvious metaphor:

Is a late baby not born?

This is where the self-delusion might come into play:

I prefer guideposts to hard-and-fast completion dates.

Guideposts are estimated, imaginary markers between where we are and where we want to go. They are not fixed in place. They are movable, both backwards and forward.

Guideposts are somewhere on the spectrum between the loosey-goosey, amorphous “I’ll do this someday” and specific, end-all be-all, life-or-death, do-or-die, now-or-never, all-or-nothing, due dates.

Clay, not clouds or concrete.

Guideposts have the primary benefits of both “I’ll do this someday” and hard-and-fast dates: They have flexibility — to account for life’s curves — and they give you a direction to walk.

Guideposts also avoid the weaknesses of both: They don’t risk the project never being completed (or even begun) and they avoid the resentment and self-hatred if dates are missed.

And, not unimportantly, it often doesn’t matter when a project is completed. Finishing a project late is (usually) infinitely better than not finishing at all. Assigning arbitrary due dates also waters down those times when there are actual due dates (like when something needs to be done for a client by X date.)

My mantra:

Guideposts, not due dates.

Where to plan, and when to move, guideposts

Plans are nothing; planning is everything.  
— Dwight Eisenhower

Even though I’m advocating that we avoid arbitrary due dates, a temporal component is still vital during the initial planning phase of a project. It’s important, when planning, to thoughtfully estimate how long a particular project will take.

Example: If I want to graduate in 3 years, I have to finish my coursework in 2 years and my dissertation in 1. Breaking it down further, I should complete X course by Y date, I should complete my research by Z date, etc., etc.

Depending on the time-boundedness of your goal, create yearly guideposts, then monthly, then weekly. At the beginning of each week, you might also create daily guideposts. (A bit too granular for me.) Guideposts are estimates, nothing more than our initial expectations of how long things will take.

As life plays out, we gain more information. Our guesses become more educated and our expectations become more realistic. We can then adjust accordingly.

Then simply move the guideposts closer (i.e., lower our expectations ) or farther away (i.e., raise our expectations.) And feel no shame.


No need to keep hitting refresh in anticipation of my next post.

Subscribe via e-mail. When there is a new post, you will know about it. That's it! No spamming!

 Or subscribe via RSS.