September 10

Everyone Needs Deadlines: Use Time as a Tool and Not as a Couch

The English dictionary has more words than can fit in this paragraph to describe what happens when we don't have deadlines. My favorites, off the top of my head, in no particular order, include the following: dillydallying, loafing, loitering, dawdling, wandering, squandering, and the catch-all term procrastinating. As an expert practitioner of all flavors of procrastination, I have finally reached the same conclusion that Walt Disney did years ago—everyone needs deadlines.

Parkinson's Law

In an essay published in The Economist in 1955, British Naval historian and author C. Northcote Parkinson highlights how a simple task—one a busy person could do in just three minutes—can take someone, an entire day, without a deadline.

Parkinson uses the example of an elderly lady who takes hours to write a postcard to her niece:

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street.
Work expands to fill time.

Parkinson's law, as it is now commonly known is as relevant today as ever.

Everyone needs deadlines. Otherwise, we'd spend forever dotting our i's and crossing out our t's, tinkering away on our projects—under the guise of perfecting our work. If not for time limits, most projects would not see the light of day.

Deadlines—the origin story

Though the word deadline has an ambiguous origin, its current usage can be traced back to Camp Sumter—a war internment camp that held prisoners. This blog article details the story well. An evil man in charge of the center ordered prisoners who (willfully or by chance) crossed an often-imaginary line around the camp to be shot dead. Thus, the word deadline was quite literal: if you crossed the line, you were dead.

This story is consistent with the word deadline used today, though the consequences are hopefully not as severe. A deadline is a date or time by which something must be accomplished. Failure to do so could have serious repercussions.

I guess that explains why deadlines sometimes resemble dread lines—a line you dread as you approach. But the alternative—a world without deadlines—can be catastrophic.

No deadlines = No output

Can you imagine a world where anyone would file a tax return if the government did not impose a filing deadline or the threat of hefty penalties for late submissions?

In the US, at least since 1955, the tax filing deadline has been April 15 (ignoring exceptions such as the recent pandemic.) Yet, every year, a good percentage of us act completely surprised on April 1 at the looming deadline, lending credence to what Twain said:

April 1 is the day on which we're reminded of what we are the other 364 days of the year.

Not only are we caught unawares, but we soon start to look for ways out. In 2019, about 15 million people—1 in 10 filers—filed for a six-month extension of their annual tax filing.

Moral of the story: Everyone needs deadlines. We can be a pretty dysfunctional society without them.

Taxes are just one example. Our lives are full of creative ways to procrastinate, even in the face of deadlines. Turning in assignments at the last minute, cramming for a test the night before, packing for a long trip a couple of hours before the flight is due to depart, etc. In a world without deadlines, the odds of any assignment being turned in are close to zero!

Deadlines are like surgical masks. Annoying but essential.

I know what you're thinking. Just because you have a deadline doesn't mean you're going to get stuff done. Point taken. Some living legends struggle with deadlines as much as you and I.

Even the great struggle with deadlines

Arguably, the greatest fantasy fiction writer of our times, George R.R. Martin (GRRM), author of the epic fantasy novel "A Song of Ice and Fire," which then became the HBO series Game of Thrones, also somewhat struggles with deadlines.

By not delivering his novels on time, GRRM has developed a reputation for procrastination. Martin's stalling has kept the internet in general and comedy writers in particular quite busy.

Case in point: Late-night TV host Conan O Brien did some sketches with GRRM as the subject, including one where a lookalike Martin is shown bubble walking, slashing mailboxes, and hitting pinatas instead of writing

GRRM bubblewalking

Image courtesy:

The sketches were in jest but illustrated the difficulty even creative geniuses like GRRM face when sticking to deadlines. Martin acknowledged this problem in his own blog.

Look, I have always had problems with deadlines. For whatever reason, I don't respond well to them... 

After missing a deadline, he went on to say this:

…and as the suspicion grew that I would not make it after all, a gloom set in, and I found myself struggling even more. The fewer the days, the greater the stress, and the slower the pace of my writing became.

The consequences of missing deadlines have repercussions even for geniuses like GRRM. But he can rest assured that his prodigious talent will be enough to keep his fanbase intact.

Not so for you and me. Unfortunately, we don't have the leeway (or the fans) to keep missing deadlines. Nor can we avoid deadlines altogether. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is never an option. But to understand why everyone needs deadlines, a short tutorial on deadlines may help.

Why everyone needs deadlines

There are two kinds of people in the world.

A: Those who believe tomorrow never comes. These are the rare few who'd like to do everything "now."

B: Then we have a majority who say, "Don't put off till tomorrow, what can be done the day after. Or, if you're lucky, never."

People in Camp A don't require any more convincing on the need for deadlines. I doubt they are even reading this far.

For the rest of us, Camp Bers, I'll defer to the words of Walt Disney.

Everyone needs deadlines. Even the beavers. They loaf around all summer, but when they are faced with the winter deadline, they work like fury. If we didn't have deadlines, we'd stagnate.


We need deadlines to avoid being stuck in a never-ending loop. Without it, we are like the human appendix—not particularly useful, but can cause distress when we don't work as expected.

But what kind of deadlines, though?

The effectiveness of deadlines depends on what's at stake and who's setting it.

Real deadlines

These typically tend to be External deadlines—others want you to do something within a defined timeframe. These kinds of deadlines generally have better results because they carry consequences which reminds me of my favorite motivational phrase: Beatings will continue until morale improves.

Here are some examples of external deadlines:

  • The responsibility to file taxes by a specific date
  • Paying your credit card bills by the due date
  • Signing your kids' trip release forms on time

Typically, these kinds of deadlines are firm, i.e., with no room to maneuver. And any maneuvering you attempt comes at a cost. Delayed tax payments incur penalties. FICO score dings appear on your credit reports for missed credit card payments. You may need to bear the wrath of a child who couldn't go on a school trip because mom forgot to sign the release. This last one is brutal. Trust me.

More importantly, these deadlines help you focus—it is one way to ensure you actually get something done. Yes, sometimes to the detriment of other important items, but beggars can't be choosers.

When you have a deadline it's like a storm ahead of you or having a truck around the corner. It's menacing and it's approaching, so you focus heavily on the task – Eldar Shafir

The other kind of deadline is the dino (deadlines in name only). These are like the Diet-coke of deadlines.

Diet-Coke of deadlines

I'm referring to self-imposed deadlines. They are time limits you set for yourself to get something done.

Not surprisingly, self-imposed deadlines traditionally have low success rates. It's easy to let things slip when you don't have the specter of accountability looming over you. You're both the boss and the doer. No one cares about the results but you. Deadlines can come and go.

"So, what if I didn't exercise as I had planned to today? I have all day tomorrow to think about it."

"Yes, I was going to drop those donation bags off today, but they can take up the entire boot space in the car for a few more days. Who cares!"

"I meant to schedule my annual health checkup today, but that can wait."

Unfortunately, the repercussions of missing self-imposed deadlines go back to the content of one of my earlier posts—knowing the difference between urgent and important.

Take this example:

A CDC study estimated that over 100,000 deaths could be prevented through detection and preventative care. So, of course, annual checkups are super important. But, urgent? They are not. So, when we set "movable" self-imposed deadlines, such as meaning to schedule a yearly checkup sometime soon, we're essentially prioritizing urgent tasks over important ones. And with no deadlines, the important tasks may never get done.

So, how do we make self-imposed deadlines work for us, knowing they are not urgent?

How to make deadlines work

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by – Douglas Adams

In the late 1940s, Toyota drew inspiration from supermarkets to stock just enough material to meet consumer demands. Thus, was borne Kanban, the popular just-in-time inventory control system. The system helped Toyota adjust warehouse supply to meet demand, thus getting rid of the problem of excess inventory.

While the just-in-time philosophy is excellent for managing cars or software, designing your life to do everything just in time can lead to some rather unfortunate consequences.

What's important to each of us is personal, subjective, and doesn't usually come with due dates. You don't have to learn French by December 31 this year or start your Etsy business by March. So, they languish. Unscheduled. And are soon forgotten.

This is why everyone needs deadlines. Without one, the things that matter to us get relegated to the corners of our minds.

Here are five guidelines to set firm, self-imposed deadlines.  These are ways to move what matters to you from the important to the "important and urgent" bucket.

1. Public accountability

Make it official. Be accountable to someone other than yourself.

If you decide to run a marathon, announce it to the world. If you plan to take the LSATs, let people know, so they can bug you about how you don't seem to be studying enough. Don't underestimate the threat of public shaming!

The American Society of Training and Development found that people are 65 percent likely to meet a goal after committing to another person.

2. Use a crystal ball

Next time you dillydally because you cannot decide how to move forward, use a crystal ball app on your phone, or toss a coin. It doesn't matter how, but just make a decision. The what-if analysis can come later.

I speak as an expert in this matter. Thanks to severe Fomo, I'm better at changing decisions than making them. I need all the help I can get when making decisions. So, thank you, crystal ball app.

3. Use mental calisthenics

A rose is a rose is a rose. Sure. But sometimes, it helps to rename things to make them sound better. Sorry, Shakespeare.

Referring to something as a chore can take the fun even out of things you'd typically look forward to. Feel free to rename stuff to make things sound better. It's easier to set and stick to deadlines when you're not dreading starting on the task. Euphemisms help take the edge off. Calling someone follicularly challenged may not be as bad as referring to them as bald.

4. Done is better than perfect.

Enough already. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good. Stop chasing unicorns.

Working on something forever in the quest for perfection can ensure you miss all deadlines. Nothing will ever get released.

Use the Pareto principle. If your idea is good enough to meet 80% of the needs, it may be ready for primetime. Roll with it. You'll have plenty of time to iron out issues later.

5. Develop tiny habits

Master self-discipline through tiny but good habits. Explore habit-streaks to get started on a deadline. Taking small steps at regular, repeated intervals is a way to signal to your brain that you're serious about the task at hand.

If you want to start a business by the end of the year, work on one tiny aspect of the business every day. Chip away at the critical task a little bit at a time.

The only way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.


There are two Pulitzer Prizes given each year for local reporting—local reporting under deadline pressure and local reporting not under deadline pressure. (That's not to say that reporters in the latter category have no deadlines, just that they have more time to work on their story and analysis.)

Mary Lou Werner (later became Mary Lou Forbes) was a famous American journalist. She won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting under deadline pressure for her coverage of the 1958 school integration crisis in Virginia following the US Supreme Court's historic Brown v Board of Education decision.

In a book released in 1991 by Karen Rothmyer, Winning Pulitzers: The Stories Behind Some of the Best News Coverage of Our Time, the author describes  Mary Lou Forbes' work ethic:

Under the constant pressure of meeting deadlines at an afternoon paper that published five editions daily, she (Werner) reported on a rapidly progressing story over the course of a year, compiling information from late-breaking court actions and other events and synthesizing them into a coherent story. Werner herself had said, "Ninety percent of my stuff would be dictated, right off the top of my head."

Now, that's probably the textbook example of how to work to a deadline. Most of us languish at the other end of the spectrum. We don't even have deadlines to start to work towards.

Even if winning the Pulitzer isn't on your bucket list, embrace the fact that everyone needs deadlines. Especially those of us who own the "pro" in procrastination. If you're looking for inspiration, look no further than a deadline. It will send you scurrying to work.

I would never finish a painting if I didn't have a deadline. Peter Doig



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