Deadlines and Demands

by Rebecca Crichton

When I was in high school, my father would berate me for waiting until the last possible moment to finish an assignment. It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered I wasn’t the only person who procrastinated.

An internet dictionary defines deadline as, ‘The latest time or date by which something should be completed.’ Then there’s an historical meaning: ‘A line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot.’

That gives me pause. The anxiety around watching a deadline approach can easily bring up images of disaster – although being shot wasn’t among mine. What was true for me was the life-long cluster of anxiety dreams relating to having missed some required behavior by a certain non-negotiable date. Dreams like having to take a test for a class I never attended. Not knowing where to go to take the final I hadn’t studied for. Or the one where I left my luggage behind when traveling or not being able to find the boat I was meant to take to somewhere I wanted to go.

I now recognize how common those dreams are. Knowing that has given me some comfort when I start scaring myself about missing a deadline. In addition, twenty-one years of being a writer at Boeing proved I could meet publication deadlines. It also showed me the ongoing truth of what is called ‘Scope Creep.’ You might know it from when you undertake a construction project of some sort and things get in the way of the hoped for completion date.

Aging brings up all sorts of deadlines we wouldn’t have thought about before. I find myself reframing the deadline concept as being more akin to the ‘Use by,’ ‘Best by’ or ‘Expiry’ date on packaged foods or other comestibles.

I admit I hang on to things longer than recommended. My daughter once helped organize my spice drawer and was appalled to find the small, aged tin of Cream of Tartar. “Mom! This is older than I am!” True. And since that substance is called for in a small number of uses, and doesn’t go bad – unless it gets wet – I wasn’t that defensive, although I admit that a 35 year-old ingredient could justifiably be replaced.

If you have had a joint replacement or other repair or renewal of internal organs, you know how that physical deadline might have happened unexpectedly or it might have given you plenty of time to consider it.

The holiday season can bring a special cluster of deadlines: acquiring and distributing gifts; scheduling gatherings, arranging travel, decorating your space, or whatever else you find on your lists of to-dos.

As I have written before, those deadlines can feel hard and triggering if you and others close to you are struggling with diagnoses or recent losses. I am especially struck by how many people I know who have new terminal diagnoses or are coping with often sudden deaths of loved ones.  

You can search for tips and tools to manage deadlines; they mainly apply to projects and work-related tasks. If you are the kind of organized person who loves spread sheets and outlines, makes detailed lists – with dates attached – by all means check those out.

My own process starts with a written list – No, I wont remember what critical need I discovered ten minutes ago! Then I look at my calendar and see what I have already agreed to do. I sometimes put things in categories of behaviors but usually a word or two will remind me of what I had in mind.

Even as I populate my schedule with things I choose to do for myself or others, I remember how easily things can change. I’m not the only person I know who recently discovered they had Covid after traveling. A good friend’s father died suddenly the same day my friend had talked with him. A fall changed another friend’s capacity to drive.

My advice for the month ahead, with its many temptations and demands, is to be as conscious as possible about what you want to do. While what others expect – “But you always do the….” – doesn’t mean you have to do it.

Try not to be apologetic or defensive about your choices. State what you can and want to do — and also what you can’t do. Remind yourself that the people who care about you probably don’t want you to be a martyr to their demands.

Honesty, once you know what that means for you, is a good habit to practice. You might be surprised to hear others be grateful for your clarity.