The misguided cult of early

I recently volunteered to do a task. This task needs to be done by Wednesday this week. I volunteered for it some weeks ago and then went through my diary to work out when I could do it. It’s a difficult task that requires about four hours to be set aside for it, and I’m working full time as well as doing a lot of volunteer work, so I knew that I would need to plan my time carefully and rearrange various things in order to get the task done before the deadline.

This I did. The earliest I could possibly do this task was today (Monday) and even that would involve rearranging paid work commitments. I duly rearranged those work commitments, which involved negotiating with four different people, and I told everybody concerned in the voluntary task that I would be doing it this Monday.

In other words, I am a busy but responsible adult who goes to huge lengths to manage expectations and get tasks done before their deadlines.

No. Apparently not. Apparently because I “could” have done it sooner but didn’t, I am in fact a naughty child who deserves to be nagged and laughed at for “leaving it to the last minute”.

Last night I received an email from someone asking if I had done the task yet. This person knows perfectly well that I have not done it. I explained to him in person that I had set Monday 2nd April to carry out the task, then I followed the conversation up in an email so that he would be in no doubt. But he still felt entitled to send me a chidingly-worded email before the date I’d scheduled, because I’d “left it to the last minute”.

In the meantime, my partner has also been teasing me for “leaving it to the last minute”. This is someone who knows precisely how busy I am, who knows just how stressful I sometimes find it to manage my commitments. This is someone who’s seen me break down in tears because I have so much to do and I am too responsible to just drop any of it when it gets too much. This is someone who knows damn well that today is the first day I’ll be able to do it. (This is also someone who refused this task themselves because – guess what? – it was too time-consuming and difficult.)

I do believe that if you genuinely can’t do a task, or want to refuse it for whatever reason, a “no” is better than saying “yes” when you don’t mean it and then letting everybody down. But I’m not going to let anybody down. I’m going to get the task done today, on the day I planned to do it, on the day I told everybody I was going to do it. And yet somehow I’m more at fault than all the people who said “no” and got away with doing nothing at all. They’re not getting nagged and laughed at, but I am.

I have felt anger about the cult of “early” for a long, long time. My attitude is: unless it’s a race, it’s not a race. If the work is handed in before the deadline, let it be judged equally with all the other work that’s handed in before the deadline. Don’t assume that something’s superior because it’s three weeks rather than two days early. It’s probably early because the creator fell for the cult of “early”.

I wish I had just said “no” to this task. When I accepted it, I thought I would get credit and approval from the voluntary group, and from my partner, for getting it done and getting it done on time. I didn’t think that failing to get it done earlier would cancel out the achievement in everybody else’s eyes but my own. I didn’t think that all my efforts to manage expectations and be upfront about what I was scheduling would be ignored because the task was scheduled close to the deadline.

I thought I was being “clever” and “good” managing to juggle things so I could cram this task in to a schedule that was already too full and get it done days before the deadline. (Pathetic really, to crave that kind of school-level approval as an adult.) But it seems that I’m still in the wrong. As I sat painstakingly planning out the weeks ahead, slotting tasks into the days like some nightmare game of Tetris, and felt a flash of triumph that I could do this task, I was putting myself into the wrong.

This is the stupidity of the cult of early. The cult of early says “It doesn’t matter that you’ve done it; it doesn’t matter how well you’ve done it; it doesn’t matter that you did it before the deadline we agreed. I still get to feel superior to you for doing it later than I think you should have done it, even if I have done nothing myself.”

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2 Comments on “The misguided cult of early”

  1. […] perfection or give up. Both serve to demotivate you. Personally, I have enough problems with other people criticising my achievements for not being done early enough; I frankly can’t be bothered to add my own inner voice to that chorus. So I tell myself: […]

  2. […] done at a specific time and date, and then do it at that exact time and date, and they’ll still fret about why you didn’t do it sooner. Through that lens, maybe submitting your best possible work before the deadline, in accordance […]

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