Why There Is Life in Deadlines

I’m fascinated by the things people are able to pull off when there’s an impending deadline. Because of the urgency created by the deadline, they do in days work that would otherwise take them months to do.

Deadlines are powerful. They push us to action. In fact, for many people, most of the action happens at the doorstep of the deadline.

I’ve worked on many projects in various contexts, and I’ve seen, firsthand, the power of deadlines: the closer we get to shipping day (i.e. the deadline), the more work gets done—just like magic. In fact, often, more work gets done in the final stretch before the deadline than the whole time before that. It’s like: the closer exam day approaches, the more study gets done; the closer Christmas day approaches, the more shopping gets done.

I’ve observed the power of deadlines in my own life.

During my school years, I was amazed by the amount of work I could get done when the deadline was close.

For instance, I remember how, in college, I would absorb months of course material in two-three nights. I don’t recommend this, but it was my experience.

Pressed by a deadline, I could write a 10-page term paper in one night. During those nights, I learned how a deadline can be a powerful cure for writer’s block. And at that time, I wasn’t even interested in writing. In fact, I hated it with a passion. But the impending deadline set me in motion, and I wrote.

You want to set someone in motion, give him or her a tight deadline.

There’s nothing intrinsically special about the few days before the deadline, other than they are closest to the deadline. What gives those days their magic, it’s the deadline. Move the deadline and the magical days move as well: bring the deadline sooner, the magical days move sooner; push the deadline, the magical days are pushed back.

Of course, the “deadline effect” is at least partially due to the human tendency to procrastinate. It certainly was true for me.

When a deadline approaches, even procrastinators take action. The consequences of not meeting the deadline seem greater than the “pain” of doing the work. Thus, this sets us in motion and pushes us to focused action. We waste less time falling for distractions and following rabbit trails.

Deadlines intensify focus. When pressed by a deadline, we place our attention on what really matters, ignoring all the peripherals.

Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. That is to say that if you give 2 weeks for the work to get done, it will take 2 weeks. If you give 3 weeks, it will take 3. If you give 4 weeks, it will take 4…. The work will take whatever time you give it, and the bulk of the action will happen at the doorstep of the deadline.

As a deadline approaches, the time available for the completion of a task shrinks. As that time shrinks, focus increases; there’s less leeway for waste.

You want to get things done; set effective deadlines.

Setting effective deadlines is an art. Set a deadline that is too tight, and you’re setting yourself (or others) up for “failure”. Set a deadline that is too loose, and you’re setting yourself (or others) up for “waste” (Parkinson’s law).

Set deadlines that are close enough that you avoid waste, but that are far enough that you don’t burn out trying to meet an unrealistic deadline.