The Power of Deadlines


The “D” Word

The word “deadline” itself almost has an ominous implication. When you imagine someone working under a deadline, you might picture red, sleep-deprived eyes staring upon piles of coffee-stained papers with the sound of a ticking clock in the background. This is the negative association that people might have with the word “deadline,” but it doesn’t have to be so dark and dreadful. In actuality, that scene might better depict the term “procrastination” rather than “deadline.”

Deadlines don’t have to be the enemy. Learn how to use deadlines so they work to your advantage.

Do Deadlines Really Work?

In short, yes. Humans need some sort of motivation or benefit to complete a task, even a simple one. Most people will procrastinate if there is not an associated deadline or benefit.

For example, Kiva, a platform that crowdsources loans for small businesses, wanted to see how deadlines affected their number of completed applications. First, they had no deadline associated with the application, but when they added a deadline, completed applications increased by 24%. Then they added a benefit to sweeten the deal for those who completed applications by an earlier deadline: an opportunity to have their application moved to the top. Not surprisingly, an additional 26% completed applications.

Use Deadlines as Encouragement, Not as a Whip

For managers, consistency is key when it comes to assigning deadlines. If managers give employees deadlines that are always “soft deadlines,” those deadlines will cease to be seen as deadlines and be seen more as “guidelines.” On the other hand, if 100% of projects assigned have tight, strict deadlines with punishments associated (having to work late or on the weekends), employees will fail to see the value in the work they’re doing.

If managers assign deadlines that are constantly missed, the issue may lie in the scope of the work. Maybe there’s too much work to be done, or maybe it might be best to break the project into smaller deadlines.

Setting Deadlines for Yourself

In a study, behavioral economics guru, Dan Ariely, and marketing professor, Klaus Wertenbroch, found that students who had an extrinsic deadline set for them by a professor received higher grades than those who were able to set their own deadlines. In fact, Ariely and Wertenbroch found that although self-imposed deadlines can help overcome procrastination, they “are not always effective as some external deadlines in boosting task performance.”

But that doesn’t mean that self-imposed deadlines never work. If you set deadlines for yourself, you have to make sure they’re realistic and set in a way to help you boost performance and not just check something off your list.

How can you impose deadlines on yourself in a way that does boost task performance?

Give yourself a little extra time before you commit to a deadline. It’s common to be a little too optimistic when setting your own deadlines.  Sometimes, a task may end up taking twice as long as originally thought.

Set up some sort of accountability system. You can ask a friend or family member to be your accountability buddy. Have them check-in with you to track your progress on a project or task.

Set small goals within your deadline. If you have a large project, break it down in small, manageable tasks before you even get started.

The Great and Powerful Deadline

Deadlines can be a powerful tool to help both employers and employees boost motivation and task completion. As Kiva learned, deadlines can also be used as a successful marketing tool. Don’t let deadlines be the monster lurking under your bed; when used strategically, deadlines can help achieve optimal productivity.

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