Don’t you just hate looming deadlines? Most people do because stress levels rise and quite often other things have to go by the wayside in an effort to complete the task with the deadline. I bet you just wish you could go without those pesky deadlines, especially those imposed by others, right? Actually, that might work against your best interests.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist from Duke and author of several books including The Upside of Irrationality, looked at ways students respond to deadlines. He divided his students into three groups. One had no deadlines other than turn in three papers by a certain date near the end of the semester. Another group got to choose their due date or dates. You see, they could have chosen to submit all three papers on the last possible day or they could set up any dates of their choosing throughout the semester. Most set their own timetables and didn’t default to the last possible date. A third group was given deadlines by Ariely.
Which group do you think did best on their grades? Logically it should have been those who could wait till the last day because that meant they could spend more time on each paper. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. In fact, as a group they did the worst on their grades. Procrastination usually isn’t helpful.
The group that got to choose their due dates performed better than those who had no due date other than the last day. Apparently some pressure was a good thing and procrastination was held at bay a little.
The group that did the best was the students who had three deadlines imposed on them by the professor. Apparently humans respond well when called to do so.
I had a chance to put this into practice over the summer. I was approached by to do a sales video that entailed writing 18-20 scripts that would last approximately five minutes each. That’s basically 18-20 blog posts on top of what I already write. I consider myself very self-disciplined but I know I can also become complacent at times.
So what did I do? My strategy was to discuss the situation with my contact at and get her to impose some deadlines on me. It worked well because I was able to get everything done in about six weeks, which was mush faster than she expected. It was a relief for me, too.
Why are deadlines typically so effective? Because they tap into the principle of scarcity. When deadlines loom we know there may be something to lose (a bonus or raise at work, a good grade at school, etc.) and that compels us to take action.
What does this mean for you? The next time you have something that needs to get done and you ask when it’s due, don’t settle for, “Whenever you get around to it.” Whomever you’re dealing with might be laid back but that “freedom” will probably hurt you in the end. Instead tell the other person you want a due date and some milestone dates before you start. Not only does that tap into scarcity, it engages the principle of consistency. When you publicly agree to the due date and milestone dates, you engage the principle on yourself because you’ll feel more compelled to hit those dates. It’s almost like having an accountability partner.
Here’s one more things about deadlines that might surprise you. People say they hate gift cards with expiration dates. They think it’s not fair because the company that sold the gift card gets to keep the money regardless of whether or not you buy anything. But, you might be surprised to learn that gift cards without expiration dates are used less than those with expiration dates! When you know the card will expire you tend to use it so you don’t waste it. However, when cards don’t have expiration dates they tend to get lost, forgotten about and all too often go unused.
So the next time you encounter a pesky deadline, maybe you should step back and remember this post then give thanks that you’ll be more likely to do what you need to in short order.