Do Deadlines Help Us Get Stuff Done?

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Deadlines have been part of most people’s life since early childhood when we were first introduced to the dreaded concept of homework. In kindergarten, I remember getting worksheets that helped me practice writing specific numbers and letters, and was tasked to turn it in the following morning. In retrospect, it seems a bit young to have homework in the traditional sense, but it’s actually estimated that the average kindergartener has around 25 minutes of homework per night. The number goes up to 28 or 29 minutes in first or second grade.

Why? When we’re that young, deadlines are important — we don’t have any other frame of reference for “getting things done.” Time is a totally different concept, and still doesn’t seem linear. How could the hour spent on the playground be the same hour as the one spent in the classroom before lunch? Because of that lack of understanding, we need guardrails in place to direct our efforts and energies, enter homework.

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As we get older, deadlines are cemented as a core component of our education and learning experiences, for better or for worse. There are definitely positive effects of deadlines and homework, including teaching students time management at a young age, building self esteem, and heightened academic achievement. But the negatives? They are daunting. Stanford research found that negative effects of homework, which averages out at around 3 hours per night for high school students, included extreme stress, sleep deprivation, general reduction in health, and “alienation from society.” In this 2013 Stanford study, 70% of students said they were “often or always stressed about schoolwork,” and 80% of students confirmed that they had at least one major health-related symptom (headaches, weight loss, sleep deprivation, stomach issues) as a result of this stress.

When we go on to college, or out into the working world, deadlines and the stress associated with it only grow. Responsibilities increase, and as you leave home and set off on your own, you are tasked with managing your entire calendar, which is a tough adjustment. Case in point: how many people started a massive college paper the night before it was due, only to spend the entire night and morning in the library finishing it? A lot — it’s estimated that 60% of college students have pulled an all nighter.

But for college students, who are learning how to manage their time, work, and social life on their own, usually for the first time, deadlines also seem like a necessary evil. If there were no deadlines, projects would take weeks or months to reach completion. Deadlines are almost like a training mechanism that programs the brain to set up timelines and workflows — if you fail to manage your time properly, you are punished by either staying up all night to complete the work, or doing poorly on the project or exam. Conversely, when you manage your time well, you’re rewarded with a good grade and praise for your work. This system existed in high school as well, but to a much lesser degree.

Once we’re out of college, though, the number of deadlines we face to continue to increase. There are deadlines for obvious things like rent or bills, and then there are work deadlines, which are the most life-consuming. Interestingly enough, it turns out that having a few deadlines can actually help improve performance, according to something called Yerkes-Dodson Law. This law basically states that the stress you experience from a deadline, referred to as “arousal level,” will motivate you and improve performance. However, there’s a point of diminishing returns — extreme stress makes it hard to focus and bring a task to completion. It’s a delicate balancing act.


Image via ResearchGate

Another interesting observation about deadlines is that longer deadlines convince people that a task is harder than it actually is. Deadlines that are further out prompt people to commit more resources to completion, when they might not be necessary, and can “lead to increased procrastination and higher likelihood of quitting,” per a study by the Journal of Consumer Research. 

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But generally, deadlines are still shown to illicit the same stress and anxiety in the working world as they did in our high school AP US History class. A study published by Harvard Business School even noted that deadlines actually made people less creative, which isn’t exactly how you want your employees to be working. Deadlines also contribute to a sort of “tunnel vision,” prompting employees to focus only on the deadline ahead and negate other important tasks. Also not ideal.

So what is the solution? The Yerkes-Dodson law, and basic human observation, prove that deadlines are actually important to ensure optimal performance and execution. But how do we ensure that rigid deadlines don’t provoke intense anxiety, stress and unnecessary health complications?

One idea is the concept of self-imposed deadlines. Individuals could work with their managers to assign a specific due-date to an item, instead of the manager slapping an arbitrary timeline on a piece of work. This will allow for more reasonable expectations, increased communication between parties, and ultimately higher quality work. Mini-deadlines are another helpful tool. Creating smaller, potentially flexible, deadlines within a larger project can help prevent tunnel vision and reduce stress. Having check-ins with a manager or co-worker throughout the project also helps, as it will help reward progress and increase responsibility. You can also utilize a project management tool, like Hive, to set up project milestones and deadlines which are easily accessible by your manager and team. 

All in all, deadlines have been a key part of most of our education and growth for years — they are how we were initially incentivized to work. To do away completely with deadlines is unrealistic, despite the additional stress they cause. Instead, consider smaller inner-project deadlines and self-imposed deadlines to keep work on track but reduce potential long-term stress and anxiety. 

Do you have any tips and tricks for deadlines and project management? Let us know in the comments below.

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