How to beat student syndrome

Jul 26, 2022

Table of contents:

  1. What is student syndrome?
  2. An example of student syndrome
  3. The problem is the deadline
  4. Running a project without a deadline

A common situation I’m sure we’ve all faced is when we have a deadline, but we procrastinate and delay working on the task until the very last minute. Panic ensues and it’s a crazy mad dash to the finish line in order to deliver the work on time.

This phenomenon is known as student syndrome and it’s a common problem that affects nearly everyone, not just students! In this article we’re going to be looking into the problem of student syndrome, and the one clever trick you need to beat it once and for all.

What is student syndrome?

Student syndrome is when you have a deadline to deliver a task, but you take it easy and procrastinate on it at first because you know you’ve got plenty of time to do the work. As the deadline approaches it becomes a frantic mad panic to get the task finished.

Working like this removes the safety margin of the available time to do the work and you put yourself under stress and pressure to deliver the work within a tight schedule. It also induces urgency into a task that may not have been urgent when it was first scheduled, and ensures you put the proper effort into completing the task.

Although it’s easy to associate student syndrome with students leaving their homework until the last minute and pulling an all-nighter in order to submit their work, the tendency to work like this affects everyone. It’s only human nature to take it easy when you feel like you’ve got time to spare, and sometimes you need to the self-inflicted pressure to deliver something that is not very interesting or exciting.

The concept of student syndrome was first introduced by Eliyahu M. Goldratt in his novel Critical Chain.

An example of student syndrome

Let’s take a look at how student syndrome can affect the delivery of a project. Imagine you’re given a deadline to hit for a new product launch. The launch date is not for another 6 months, so you take it easy for the first couple of months because you know you’ve still got plenty of time to get everything finished.

However, as the deadline starts to get nearer, you realise that there was actually more work involved than you initially estimated. As you start to hit problems, you start to get more panicked as the pressure due to the ticking clock begins to weigh down on you. Suddenly you realise the safety margin of extra time you had to deliver the project has gone.

As the deadline quickly approaches, you either manage to deliver the project under a huge amount of stress or pressure, you under-deliver on what was originally promised, or the project runs over the deadline and is delivered late.

Does this sound familiar?

The problem is the deadline

Whenever you have a deadline for a piece of work, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of student syndrome. The problem stems from the fact that a deadline into the future has been set and it’s our human nature to underestimate the work involved.

Therefore, the secret to avoiding student syndrome is to get rid of the deadline!

Work happens at a given rate. If the work you do is very predictable, you can probably already estimate how long something is going to take you with great accuracy. However, even if the tasks you work on vary in complexity or unforseen problems, it’s still possible to estimate how long you expect it will take. Estimating your work is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s just agree that we all have a set rate in which we complete tasks.

The rate in which you complete work is pretty much fixed, there isn’t really that much you can do to change it. Of course, you could work harder, or for longer hours, but these are short term measures that will eventually lead to burnout. This ultimately will completely kill your rate of work so whilst it might be ok to hit short-term deadlines, it isn’t a lever you want to press down and hold for too long.

Once you understand your rate of work, you can start to predict when the tasks you are working will be completed. You should be able to estimate the complexity of the tasks you are working on, and then determine when you believe they will be finished. Of course, this process won’t be 100% accurate. But once you have enough data on your working habits and routines, it will be close enough to be useful.

At this point, you now know what needs to be done, and your rate of work. You should be able to predict how long it will take to complete all of the tasks. However, there’s a fixed deadline at some point in the future, you can’t go over that deadline or the project will be late.

This is where the magic comes in. Once you have this data, you (or the project manager) can pick and choose what should and should not go into the piece of work in order to deliver it on time. In fact, if the person scheduling the work is different from the person doing the work, the person doing the work does not even need to be aware of the deadline. They can just continue working on the tasks at their given rate of work, in naive bliss about the presence of a deadline.

Running a project without a deadline

This all might sound too good to be true, so let’s take a look at a practical example to make the point more concrete.

Imagine you are building an exciting new version of a product at the company you work for. You hope to launch it at the annual conference that is held in front of a live audience every autumn. The conference has a fixed date, you can’t change it as tickets for the keynote have already been sold and the press has already been invited to the great unveiling of the latest hot new technology innovation. The product must be ready to be sold to customers by the time the conference rolls around.

There are multiple ways of looking at this problem, depending on how you manage the projects at your company. Method A is what most people do, they set a deadline and work their employees to exhaustion in order to deliver the project. Method B doesn’t.

First, let’s take a look at Method A. The top brass at the company take a couple of days away from the office in order to do some blue sky thinking for what should be included in the next major release of their product. They come back and present a list of ideas to the engineering team who provide estimations for how long the work will take to complete. The work must be delivered on time for the conference. Management uses these estimations to set internal deadlines for marketing, sales, and customer support so those different company functions can prepare for the big new launch. At this point, everyone has deadlines for work that is being forced into a schedule in order to hit an external deadline. You’ve almost guaranteed student syndrome will rear its ugly head and the work will either be delivered late or not to the required specification. Furthermore, because you’ve set dependency deadlines for every other department based upon the engineering estimations, if something ends up running over you will affect the work of everyone involved in the launch.

Let’s take a look at the opposite approach. You know the date of the conference, this is a fixed date that cannot be moved. You also know the rate of work for the people in the organisation. You don’t push people to the point of exhaustion so let’s rule out working people overtime to hit your self-imposed deadlines. Once you know the fixed date of the conference and the rate of work of the people involved, management can choose what should and should not be included in the project. Management, marketing, sales, and customer support can negotiate between themselves what are the highest priority items, and what needs to be released in the next point release because it won’t fit into the schedule of work for delivering for the conference date. No one is given a deadline because you no longer need one. The work is delivered at the expected rate of work.

If you are in management or you feel uncomfortable at the idea of not putting people under pressure in order to hit deadlines, you’re thinking about the problem in the wrong way. Using a method that does not require deadlines puts all of the power in your hands. You are free to choose exactly what should and should not be included in the agreed work in order to hit your deadline.

Philip Brown


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