The Power (Read: Beauty) of Deadlines

12 Dec

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Douglas Adams.

“Deadlines. What a nasty word!” You say and shiver with disgust. You think of the most recent deadline you missed because of your not-anymore-secret procrastination or extremely heavy workload that would kill a horse. You think of your furious boss/teacher and your ashamed look of which you only caught a glimpse in a shop window on your way back home. Finally, you visualize the relief you felt the moment you sank into bed knowing that there won´t be any deadlines for the following two weeks.

Yet, no matter how evil deadlines may seem, they are actually the best thing since sliced bread. They are the ultimate whip who enforces discipline: They make you stay up late and/or get up early, they approve your increased coffee consumption and make you realize both the stick (punishment for being late) and the carrot (reward for not missing the d- thing).

If you think that deadlines are unnecessary and (especially if imposed “from above”) ineffective because you yourself know best what and by when you are capable of finishing – you are wrong. Let me illustrate it first and subsequently back it up with evidence.

Imagine your boss asks you to submit a paper on the efficiency of the latest advertising campaign you launched but does not give you a specific deadline; (s)he merely hints that “it would be nice to have it by the end of the month”. What will you do? Chances are, you really care about making a good impression. Hence, you take your time to gather data and check every single thing that could possibly go wrong. You process the data and spend many days creating fancy graphs, charts, tables and who knows what else.

However, the evening before the day you want to submit the paper you realize that in Section 3.3.1.a there is a sentence that slightly changes the meaning of the whole paragraph. You change it in the morning, but then you start wondering – was it just this one mistake, or are there more? You postpone the meeting with your boss and go over every detail again. And then you come up with an idea for a new graph that could make the report much better. But you do not have the right data. So, here we go again, two more weeks… And in the end your desire to hand in a “perfect” piece of work (to impress) makes you waste your time and your “normal” work suffers.

Sounds familiar? Now let´s look at what data say:

According to Dr. Ariely and his “Predictably Irrational”, students who got strict deadlines “from above” when their papers (during a semester) were due scored on average much higher than those who just came up with personal deadlines. But guess who scored the worst: It was those, who were not subject to any deadlines at all (apart from the end of the grading period).

The explanation is simple: Deadlines make us realize the value of time. If you are pressed for time, you a) focus more – because you have no alternative, b) prioritize – otherwise you fail, c) plan your work and stick to the plan – the only smart thing to do and d) beat your procrastination syndrome easier – as there is no time left in your plan for “procrastination”.

Of course, this works <=> (non-mathematicians read: “if and only if”) you do not collapse from stress because you are unable to manage your time (tips here).

The bottom line is – do not loathe your boss for giving you deadlines (you can do that for a million other things). (S)He is just trying to make you more productive and better organized. Remember that having freedom to do whatever you want to do is great only as long as you know where you are headed. Always think of the whip and the cake (promotion?) and do “what you gotta do“. It pays off.

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Posted by on 12 December, 2011 in Rationality


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