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June 29th, 2019

Everyone knows what it feels like when a deadline begins to loom.  Deadlines can be useful by compressing our effort with some stress.  The unhealthy ‘all-nighter’ is a great example of just how motivating a deadline can be.  Humans are the only species that regularly deprive themselves of sleep for a whole variety of reasons.  (As a side note, there are some whales that will undergo some sleep deprivation when caring for a newborn but this does not even begin to approach the degree to which humans starve themselves of sleep.)  And yet, the deadlines that motivate us to stay up all night rarely have to do with anything as important as the care of a newborn. 


The hope designed into a deadline is that the time between the establishment of a deadline and the actual deadline will be enough time to get the work done.  But this arrangement rarely takes into account human nature and the way we do or don’t do what we are supposed to.


Not only are we likely to procrastinate, but when we actually make moves forward, the work might even expand.


Perhaps by now Parkinson’s Law has come to mind:


Work expands to fill the time allotted for it.


The unfortunate aspect of this law is that it does not go backwards in time.  A more precise phrasing might be: work expands to fill the time we have left to complete it.


Parkinson’s Law is the reason why deadlines are useful.  They force us psychologically to actually get things done.  Without deadlines, the work can continue to expand and space itself out as we deceive ourselves in an attempt to be more ‘thoughtful’ about each decision and action.


This is where a difference with time-limits can be useful.  If we can visualize the time between now and our designated deadline as being chunked with time-limits, then we can work more effectively.


Here’s a real-world example:


It’s quite likely to say or hear someone say “all I have to do today is X” and the likelihood that much of the day is spent procrastinating or that X takes all day goes up, when in reality, the day could probably be used far more effectively.


If we give X a time-limit, it’s like a mini-deadline and we can be far more efficient about getting the damn thing done.  And unlike a sleep-deprived all-nighter, such daily time-limits are more likely to produce higher quality work because our cognitive abilities aren’t starving for the benefits of sleep.


Often we make the mistake of thinking about our whole day as the time-limit for what needs to get done, but when thinking about how to proceed, we can benefit from thinking about a time allowance that we can give to each and every thing we hope to do.  Not only does this compress the work, but it also gives us the ability to simply stop working on something for the time being when it proves to take to long so that we can move on to other things.



This episode was greatly informed by Dr. Mathew Walker’s work which is beautifully presented in his book “Why We Sleep”.  Click on the book below to purchase.      

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Podcast Ep. 440: Deadlines vs Time-Limits

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