How to Use Deadlines to Your Advantage
There’s only so much you can get done in a day and not everything can be priority #1. But for the things that are really important (and sometimes for those urgent things that quickly rise to importance), a strong deadline can spur the action you need and keep you on track to completion. There is even some evidence that having a deadline drives stronger performance.
“Embracing deadlines is happiness,” claims Christopher Cox, visiting scholar at New York University and author of The Deadline Effect: How To Work Like It’s the Last Minute – Before the Last Minute. “Embracing deadlines leads you to be productive . . . despite their somber name and the bad connotation we have with the word, they’re wonderful things. If we embrace them our lives will be better.”
Okay, that sounds a little like a guy hawking a book on NPR, but deadlines are not something to dread. Used well, they are a serious tool for prioritizing your workload and getting things done. When you know how to manage them (rather than letting them manage you) realistic, challenging deadlines can be energizing, helping to concentrate your focus and enabling you to avoid the stress and panic of working at the last minute.
With so much to get done between now and the end of the year (and all those goals you have for 2022) here are some ways to use deadlines to your advantage.
- The most effective deadlines focus on you and your own productivity. Key in to the things you can control. When you need to set deadlines for your team, convey what’s at stake, engage them in the process and avoid the temptation to set false deadlines that can make people distrust you.
- Set deadlines for the things that really matter. Not everything can be first on your priority list. Some things really are meant to be done when you have a little slack in your schedule. But for key tasks, make sure you create a deadline that helps add urgency and positive pressure to deliver on time. Like goals, deadlines that are concrete and a bit challenging tend to be the most motivating and create a rewarding sense of celebration when you reach them.
- Consider a series of interim deadlines. In The Deadline Effect, Cox shares research where a university professor gave students the opportunity to set their own deadlines. They could choose to have everything from the semester due on the last day, adhere to evenly spaced deadlines throughout the semester set by the professor, or set their own interim deadlines. The students who chose one big deadline at the end performed the worst. Those who worked within the professor’s interim deadlines, or set such deadlines for themselves, performed much better. Research shows that shorter-term deadlines are more likely to be met and the mental effort of creating self-imposed deadlines helps organize your work.
- Focus short term. One reason a far-off deadline may be harder to meet is that it’s difficult to accurately picture ourselves in the future. Our present-moment bias makes it harder to value future risks and rewards in the same way that we can those much nearer term. Interim deadlines can bring a large, long-term project into your here and now. Your final deliverable may be two years away, but an interim deadline to meet next week can keep you moving forward.
- Tame your optimism. Most of us are really amazing people far off in the future who get everything done on time and under budget. The Planning Fallacy describes the human tendency to underestimate how much time a future task will take, its likely difficulty and the costs and risks associated with it. Cox says there is a simple and deliberate solution to this challenge. He advocates looking at a project you have completed in the past that is similar in scope to a project you are planning now. Consider the time, challenges and costs involved in that project and apply them to the one being planned now. If it actually took three months to build and roll out a marketing campaign for your last product launch, it’s dangerous to assume you can do it in two weeks for another product now.
- Use right to left planning. You can set a deadline in either direction, from where you are to where you need to go, or from where you need to end back to your starting point. It’s often best to start with the end in mind, an approach advocated by Stephen Covey in his blockbuster book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As Covey explains, envisioning your desired outcome helps you create it in your mind before you bring it to life physically. This type of planning also allows you to flag worrisome bottlenecks and plan to bring additional resources to bear if success looks unlikely.
“A deadline is not your enemy, it’s how you’re going to get things done,” Cox says. It gives you something to organize your thoughts around and can help end the procrastination of just thinking about something and energize you toward action.