Most of us don't need more time. We just need more deadlines.
On Sunday, April 3, 2005, Michigan State and North Carolina were battling out in the final four of the NCAA basketball tournament. The Detroit Free Press published an article about the game, in which columnist Mitch Albom alluded to the presence of two former Michigan State stars—Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson—seen supporting their team from the stands. Fairly standard reporting, right? Not.
The trouble was, the part of the story about the former players attending wasn’t true—they never made it to the game.
Albom hadn’t intentionally set out to lie. The ex-players had indeed planned on attending the game but ultimately didn’t. The reporting discrepancy was a direct consequence of the newspaper’s printing logistics, which required a major portion of the article to be submitted ahead of the game. As it eventually turned out, the published article was factually inaccurate and led to loss of credibility and a whole lot of embarrassment for both the paper and its star reporter.
The above episode highlighted an underlying problem, not just in newspaper publishing, but in many fields—awkwardly timed deadlines.
Now, you may think, “Aren’t all deadlines awkwardly timed?”. Fair enough.
A deadline is like a hibernating, camouflaged snake in a room—it could linger in the corner for weeks, unnoticed. We only pay attention when it gets closer and starts hissing around us. But, by then, it’s impossible to have a steady, measured response and, as a result, we go into pants-on-fire panic mode turning deadlines into dread lines, which, ironically, is closer to the original intent of the word.
The origin story
The etymology of the word deadline is interesting. Originally, deadline referred to a physical boundary around a military prison beyond which a prisoner could not venture without risk of being shot by the guards. In that literal sense, you could end up dead, if you ventured beyond the line.
The modern usage of the word deadline is decidedly less morbid. Thankfully.
It’s hard to envisage your supervisor shooting you because you strayed away from the building to smoke instead of working on your report. Nor will your teacher execute you for failing to turn in an assignment in a timely manner. Sure, you may get berated by your supervisor, or end up with a big fat C on your assignment, but failing to meet deadlines rarely ever means the end of your existence. Especially when so many of our deadlines aren’t even real.
Real vs Fake deadlines
Even if we don’t articulate it as such, most of us intuitively know there are two types of deadlines in the universe: a real one that matters and a fake one that’s usually someone’s preference. Predominantly, when we’re asked for a “due date” on a task, we give out the latter—a fake deadline—which is essentially our preference for when we’d like the task to be completed.
Fake deadlines don’t have any real consequences.
Residential contractors understand this concept more than any other group. When you tell your contractor you need your kitchen remodeled in six weeks, and your contractor agrees, they’re just being nice to you even though they know fully well that you have a higher chance of going to Mars than having a new kitchen in six weeks. Contractors understand the six-week deadline for what it is—wishful-thinking and just a preference.
Yet, these kinds of preferential deadlines are a song and dance we all indulge in. And, in many ways, it has resulted in diluting what could otherwise be a powerful performance tool—real deadlines.
Real deadlines, when unmet, have consequences. In his book High Performance Habits, performance expert Brendon Burchard writes about how he asks people to give him meaningful deadlines. He says a real deadline is,
The date when the world will explode, your career will be destroyed, or a domino effect leading to both your and my ultimate demise will truly begin. Any date before that is your preference, and with due respect, by the time you’ve sent me this request, I have 100 preference requests in front of you.
So, other than revving up anxiety, do real deadlines serve any purpose? Yes.
Why deadlines matter
Although it may seem counterproductive, deadlines matter, because they help with key aspects of personal development most of us inherently struggle with.
No deadline = No motivation
In 2015, when the US National Science Foundation eliminated deadlines for grant submissions in geoscience, because the vetting process was overloaded, they noticed a precipitous decline in annual submissions. Grant requests fell by 59% without the pressure of a deadline. Good to know that even methodical research scientists have motivation issues.
If we all had the power to self-motivate ourselves all the time, the self-help industry wouldn’t be worth 43.77 billion USD in 2022, according to market estimates. The power of deadlines is in getting us to move. Especially because, for the most part, these are set externally.
AP Exams happen not when you feel like, but at set dates.
World-class athletes tailor their training regimen to achieve peak performance at the Olympics for dates they do not control.
Knowing you have to be done, really done, by a definite date that you have no control over can be incredibly motivating.
Another benefit of a deadline is that it helps to get our blinders on and focus.
Deadlines help us focus
Sure, we like to procrastinate. But, thanks to our negativity bias, we like even more to not be berated. So, when deadlines approach, we tend to hunker down and get to it.
But deadlines aren’t only about negative consequences.
When we work towards a deadline, at some point, the finish line will become apparent. Just like how marathoners who are seen struggling at the 20-mile mark can suddenly be seen sprinting when they see the finish line, knowing the end is near creates a tunnel effect, allowing us to focus on the task at hand. Surprisingly, this increased focus also results in improved performance.
Deadlines help us get to done
Admit it. Without deadlines, and left to our own devices, we’d have just a ton of half-finished projects cluttering up both our physical and mental spaces.
In a study on decision making, researchers confirmed that time pressure (deadlines) is needed to disengage from one task and move on to the next.
By focusing and completing the task at hand, we are then free to pay attention to the next activity. Done is better than perfect.
So, how do we use the power of deadlines? Here are some pointers:
How to set and use deadlines effectively
If possible, find an external deadline. When you sign up for a marathon, for instance, you are working to a date you can’t move. This inherently forces you to hunker down and start training because your choices are limited.
Stick to activities that align with your purpose: If you really hate something, there is a high chance you won’t complete it no matter what deadlines you are up against. This is why some level of introspection is required before you sign up for things to do.
Good resolutions are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws. Their origin is pure vanity. Their result is absolutely nil. Oscar Wilde.
Motivation is the start. But doing is what matters. Use tools like the Pomodoro technique to focus on one activity for a short duration intensely. This can go a long way in rewiring our brain and train our monkey minds to focus.
The Penguin Group USA wanted to schedule the release of writer Jack Kerouac’s biography to coincide with the 50th anniversary publication of Kerouac’s own novel On the Road. But the writer of the biography, Douglas Brinkley, fell behind on his deadline. A lengthy lawsuit ensued and consequently, Brinkley was forced to return the advance deposit he had received from the publisher.
What Mr. Brinkley experienced was a real deadline—a schedule, when unmet, that carried real, financial consequences. As this example illustrates, it’s hard enough to finish tasks even when there are real deadlines attached. It goes without saying that without deadlines, a majority of us would never finish anything we start.
Deadlines are the ultimate inspiration. And they are most powerful when we learn to embrace them instead of treating them with dread.
I would never finish a painting if I didn’t have a deadline. Peter Doig.