Deadlines Are Your Best Friend

A stop-watch lying on a table

Photo by Shawn Stutzman

Your work is due in two hours and you’re staring at a blank page.

We’ve all been there. Fortunately, nothing focuses the mind like a looming deadline. There’s something magical about deadlines that gets the best work out of us.

In fact, productive people use them as a tool to maximise their effectiveness. Instead of seeing deadlines as the enemy, they learn to embrace them as their best productivity friend.

This essay explains why deadlines work and how to use them to boost your productivity.

Parkinson’s Law

In 1955, a civil servant writing in The Economist opened his piece with the sentence:

"It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

— Cyril Parkinson

This astute observation became known as Parkinson’s Law and is one of the most regularly quoted principles of productivity.

The law explains why meetings fill their allotted 30 minutes exactly. Nobody books a 30-minute meeting because they believe the discussion requires precisely that amount of time. They do it because it’s the default duration of a calendar appointment. Yet, meeting after meeting suspiciously expands to fill the allotted time.

Similarly, if you ask someone to complete a task by Friday, they will be working on it right up until the deadline. It’s just human nature. It applies equally to the office as it does to personal life. If you have guests coming at 10am, you will be cleaning the house right up to 9.55am.

I suspect the root cause of Parkinson’s Law is our education system. Exams and essays teach us that if we’re given a lot of time – or a lot of lines to fill – our answer should be sufficiently long enough. We’re trained from a young age to deliver a volume of work corresponding to the deadline we’re given. This eventually translates to our work life. When our boss gives us two weeks to get a project done, we mentally assess the amount of work required to fill two weeks and we deliver it.

Which raises an interesting question: if we always fill the time given to us, what happens if we’re given less time?

Work Shrinks To Fit

It turns out, Parkinson’s Law works in both directions. Work also shrinks to fit the time given to it. If I give you a week to write a report, you’ll take a week. If I give you a day, you’ll get it done in a day. I could probably give you two hours and you’d get something done, perhaps just a little less polished.

When the available time shrinks, we naturally find ways to move faster. We discard nice-to-have aspects of the work and focus on the core of what needs to be delivered.

Our brains subconsciously apply the 80/20 principle – recognising that 80% of the value of our output comes from 20% of our efforts. Short deadlines force us to identify the 20% so we can still deliver on time.

Without the pressure of a deadline, we never apply that critical thinking. And so, we conduct work that isn’t strictly necessary but seems perfectly reasonable at the time.

How to Set Deadlines

To be effective, you need to use deadlines to generate pressure on all the work you do. That pressure will squeeze out the unnecessary bits and pieces, leaving you to focus on the crux of the problem.

The method for developing pressure depends on how you organise your work. If most of your tasks are set by someone else, you need to work with them to ensure:

This is easier said than done because it requires you to make things uncomfortable for yourself. In my experience, the right amount of pressure is when you start to feel mildly stressed by the number of tasks you need to accomplish. You feel like you can only just keep all the plates spinning, and any more tasks would make that untenable.

If your job is autonomous and you choose most of your work, the discipline of setting deadlines is still relevant. You just need to set deadlines for yourself that feel challenging.

To give the deadlines meaning, find a way to commit to them publicly. Promise to share the results with someone or make a public commitment to complete your project by a certain date. Social media can be helpful for this. The external pressure ensures the deadline isn’t an empty promise you don’t believe in.

Take this same approach if your boss gives you work without a deadline. Think about the deadline date that would exert the right amount of pressure and proactively set up a review meeting for that date.

Finally, when choosing deadlines, remember that your work will magically shrink to fit in almost every case. If you’re on the fence about whether to pick Wednesday or Thursday, pick Wednesday. Or even Tuesday. Your brain will be trying to avoid the stress that tight deadlines bring, so you must deliberately counteract that.

Deadlines Must Be Realistic

Parkinson’s Law is not a perfect mathematical formula. If you give someone no deadline at all, they won’t work infinitely long on the project. And similarly, if you give someone 10 minutes to write a thesis, it’s not going to happen.

Occasionally failing to hit a deadline, by a small margin, is probably a good sign. It means you’re pushing the boundaries and challenging yourself. But if you regularly miss deadlines, then you’ll undermine the whole process.

Once you stop believing deadlines are achievable, they lose all their benefits. The pressure will be released, because you know the deadline is impossible.

To avoid this, consider your deadline performance as part of your regular progress reviews. If you never fail to hit a deadline, consider giving yourself less time. Conversely, if you have missed quite a few deadlines, take action before you lose faith in the process.

Pressure is Good For You

All this talk of pressure may be putting you off the idea of embracing harsher deadlines.

But it’s worth remembering growth requires discomfort. You don’t build bigger muscles without lifting more. You can’t run a marathon without countless training runs where you push harder than you want to. The lessons you will learn from this process will stay with you and enhance your work for the rest of your career.