One Year Of Discipline, Day 20: How to finish a Project on a Deadline


One Year Of Discipline

I think deadlines are always good. Everyone should set himself a deadline for even small tasks, like ‘today I will complete this experiment by 4 pm’ or ‘I will write 1,000 words by the end of the next hour’ or whatever other project you want to accomplish. I recently took a writing class, and on the first day we had to all of a sudden complete a short text about our profession within 20 minutes. As unexpected as this task was – and the teacher shuffled his feet around and glanced demonstratively over our shoulders to distract us -, as successful were we in finishing it.

Warts and all – those were not masterworks. But they were done. I find it much easier to write something first, then cover the corrections and editing, than to try to get everything perfect on the first run. Chances are, it won’t be perfect, and then I just spent more time than necessary for writing a draft that needs to be edited anyway.

However, if the project is larger, it won’t help to just start working on it. You have to carefully plan beforehand what you are going to do, so that you know the parts that you have to prioritize. It’s too easy – at least for me – to run off on a tangent and lose precious time in the process.

The hardest deadline I was ever under was during my PhD thesis in Dresden (Germany). My task was to elucidate the mechanisms that guide the migration of cells in developing zebrafish embryos. We used a precision microscope to film these cells – both in controls and mutant embryos that were lacking a specific gene. We would analyze these movements using specific software. Simply spoken: if we realized the cells moved different in the mutant embryos, we could conclude that our gene was responsible to ensure proper cell movements.

We took the measurements in Dresden – and then collaborated with a group in Iowa City (USA) to analyze the data. This required me to actually fly over and be there with them.

I had one month of time. There was no second chance – if I did not manage to complete the work there, we would not have data for my first publication – which came out one year later. I succeeded in getting the work done. But I had to carefully plan how I would spend that one month in Iowa City.

Here is what worked for me. My plan even compensated for the loss of one week’s worth of data in between. These accidents happen. Almost always in the most inopportune moments…

#1 – Finish as much as you can beforehand.

In my case, it was clear what we had to finish before leaving for I0wa City – we had to record all the cell movements with our microscope. In general, you want to have everything you need in place before you embark on your deadline-ridden project. If you use software, you have to make sure that the program is running flawlessly. If you are renovating your house, you want to have all the materials there. If you are preparing for a test and gearing up for a month of intense focus, you want to take care of all possible distractions beforehand.

#2 – Take a short breather before you start.

I arrived in Iowa City on a weekend and started to work on monday. That weekend was important. I acclimatized myself to the place I was staying, gathered the materials that I would use for my work, made sure my computer was running smoothly and then just sat back, read a book, went for a walk, watched TV etc. On monday, I could basically start with a clean slate without feeling rushed.

#3 – Set yourself time-limits

On the weekend of my arrival, I compared how many images I had to analyze to the days that I would stay in Iowa City. I set myself a maximum time that I had per image. This was important, since that prevented me from the mistake we all too easily make. One month can seem like an eternity, and you may be tempted to take it a little easier at the beginning. I certainly would. Then, closer to the deadline, time is running out.

But not if you allocate set time restrictions on your tasks from the get go.

That was the central principle of my work: break the big task into smaller actions, and put a time limit on even the smallest of steps that you do. And then try to finish faster. I had 12 minutes for each image, and I managed to get them done in 7 minutes each. I definitely wanted to be done before the end of that one month, so that I had extra time to spare.

The time limitation made me focus like a madman, and breaking the project into smaller tasks also made it easier to delegate some of the work to students who were helping me on the project.

#4 – Eliminate distractions.

I am sure one reason that the time in Iowa City worked out for me was – Iowa City. A charming little college town, free from any distraction. I fondly remember discovering my first slice of wonder bread and a great organic (though slightly overpriced) pizza from the earth food store around the corner. I did not have a car, so I would often walk around the neighborhood and enjoy the peace and serenity of that place. I was there in October 2002, which also meant the leaves had changed to an impressive assortment of colors. This was almost out of a movie, and I fully expected Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman/Woody Allen as a college professor in tweed jacket turn around the corner.

In reality, I had grown up in a small town in Germany, and the whole atmosphere – the smells in the air, the relative silence of the place and the slightly damp, yet sunny weather made me feel welcome – like coming home. There was a certain calmness of this place that told me: everything will be good.

You want to create an atmosphere around you that not only is absent of any distractions, but that also focuses your mind. For me, that works best when I can zoom in on one distinct feature of the environment. In my case, a feeling of home. And it can also be something very simple. You could go for a walk each day and always stop by a certain monument or even the owner of a specific neighborhood shop. You want to create something that is familiar to you and anchors your mind to your surroundings – that way, your mind always aligns with what is around you. You stay more easily focussed and on task.

Summary of Day 20

Below you will find

(a) a quick description how I fared on my main goals – losing body fat, working on my blog, installing good habits;

(b) my thoughts for the day;

(c) how the rest of the program went and whether there were any irregularities or other noteworthy points.

Day 20

Losing body fat

Body fat a little up: 22.6% again.

Breakfast: Coffee, Protein shake, Eggs.

Nothing for lunch, Mozzarella for dinner.

Today’s juice: Cabbage carrot juice. Just a couple of weeks ago, I would have never thought I’d juice a whole head of broccoli rage together with carrots and actually drink it! You can find the recipe here or in Juicing for Power. (*)

Calisthenics routine:

Not much different to yesterday – all push-ups in good form, still with some interruptions in between. I just had to take a few second breaks from time to time.

120 squats in good form.

120 sit-ups in good form.

Working on my blog

I wrote this blog post here.


(a) Emotional Health: We just realized that we were getting competition on our work. So me and my colleagues huddled together and geared up for strictly prioritizing our work and getting it done fast. It’s good that we fall together when times get rough.

(b) Spiritual Health: I continued the Happiness Habit. What was I grateful for?

1. Getting enough sleep.
2. Getting up early
3. Focusing on my priorities.

(c) Mental Health.

10 books I can write.
1. Fantasy book about ORC CUP.
2. History of German Soccer.
3. NoNothingNovember book.
4. eBook about habits.
5. Life of rock stars viewed through the eyes of a romantic composer.
6. Book of magic.
7. Book about biochemistry.
8. A book about why most book ideas suck.
9. Why snakes would make bad burglars.
10. Cats are cowards, dogs are gullible.

Thoughts for the day

What did I do well?
I made a stringent plan on how to do work under heavy competition.

What do I want to improve?
I am still wasting too much time in the morning when I should be writing right away; probably because I am tired.

How will I improve?
Get more sleep.

The rest of the “30-Days of Discipline” items went fine.

Video Summary Day 20


To check the description of the “One Year of Discipline” challenge, click here.

To see yesterday’s post, click here.

To get back to the homepage, click here.

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