Deadlines make us more productive

As I’m about to go on an overseas trip I reflected on how much work I’ve actually processed over the past week. It got me thinking why was this week any different from other weeks as I always plan and prioritise my work. And the only difference was that I had a major deadline – the date of my travel.

I thought about it even further and why does it always seem before I go on holiday that I’m really busy leading up to the holiday? Surely you’ve also experienced this? Is it that we try to cram more in before going on holiday, we underestimate how long certain tasks take, we’ve overcommitted, we’re just catching up on finishing work we already should have completed? In reality it’s probably a combination of all of these or even something more simple – that by working to a deadline heightens the urgency and commitment of completing tasks by a certain date and time?

Interestingly there was study involving college students which found students who set strict deadlines on themselves for assignments performed far better (and more consistently) than those who didn’t. What was further fascinating about this study was that students who gave themselves too generous of a deadline often suffered from the same problems as students who didn’t set deadlines at all.

And I think this is because 20% of people are chronic procrastinators, while 95% say they procrastinate sometimes. This theory is further supported by a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research which found that “deadlines set near the present encouraged people to get started on their work, while deadlines set further in the future (e.g., early next month, early next year) encouraged procrastination.” And I think many of us are often guilty of deferring action to another time.

I tend to think of deadlines as 2 types: big and small.

Examples of big deadlines could be going on a holiday, end of financial year, completing a major piece of work like a company wide IT upgrade etc

Whereas examples of small deadlines are things like completing a piece of work by a specific time or before having a coffee, leaving work by 5pm etc

I believe that in order to make deadlines work for you they need to have a realistic chance of being achieved. If there’s too many unrealistic deadlines then all we do is overload the system (our brain) and either the deadline just blends in with “white noise”, we can become overwhelmed or demotivated from consistently missing the deadlines or we just end up working longer to meet the deadlines.

On the positive side, a benefit of having a deadline to work towards is it gives us an anchor to plan and prioritise activity.  For instance if you were interested in buying a new car then the end of month or end of quarter might be the best time to buy the car. The reason is car manufacturers generally set dealership sales goals and if the dealer is just shy of the goal then they might be more aggressive to offer an attractive incentive to purchase now. Conversely it can work the other way if the dealership has already achieved their sales goal.

4 suggestions to help make deadlines work for you are:

  • Schedule your deadlines – use your email calendar to schedule meetings with self to action your most important work
  • Be disciplined - unless we’re disciplined in meeting the deadline we need to be careful it doesn’t become an unbroken promise
  • Realistic / achievable – you need to have a reasonable chance of actually delivering the deadline.
  • Treat deadlines like a game – have some fun with it, (remember most sporting games have a winner or loser at the end of a specified timeframe) have a reward system and recognise when you are achieving

Well my deadline is nearly here. For those of you taking leave over Xmas, maybe yours is getting closer also.