The Power of Arbitrary Deadlines

One of the biggest differences between my boyfriend and I is that he tends to procrastinate, whereas I tend to micromanage every task to ensure it’s completed ahead of schedule. Interestingly, over the last several months, I’ve noticed that he’s started to plan things out weeks, months and years in advance. The other day, in a dumbfounded stupor, I asked, “Who are you?!

This morning Seth Godin’s daily newsletter gave me a hint at the answer. Seth suggests that if you need deadlines to do you best work, make some up. My boyfriend is currently preparing to apply to medical school–a huge feat that requires extensive preparation. Realizing how many moving pieces are involved, he has independently developed a brilliant hack to ensure the strongest possible application.

In Western society, we’ve been trained from a young age to respond to external deadlines. Whether homework, chores or work projects, many people only feel the magic of accomplishment when they’re gunning for a deadline.

A great way to concoct some motivation is to set your own arbitrary deadlines, along with a method of reward or punishment. Want to put an “MD” behind your name? Great. Are you willing to donate money to a cause you abhor if you miss your deadline? Okay.

In the end, if your realize you need the “last minute” to be your best self and accomplish your best work, first go manufacture some last minutes and find someone who will hold you accountable.

Across my career, I’ve always been sent the employees who struggle with time management and have trained them in similar principles. Rather than focusing on the overwhelming workload, focus on how you’ll spend that juicy performance bonus when the task is completed.

If you need to author 50 pages or field 100 phone calls in an eight-hour day, that’s 6.25 pages or 12.5 calls per hour. These soft deadlines allow flexibility, adjustments and the celebration of micro-accomplishments throughout the day. Hooray!

It reminds of of Daniel Pink’s book Drive, in which he talks about the carrot and the stick–essentially the use of reward and punishment in motivating human behavior–as well as the less tangible factors involved.

“We know that human beings are not merely smaller, slower, better-smelling donkeys trudging after that day’s carrot. We know—if we’ve spent time with young children or remember ourselves at our best—that we’re not destined to be passive and compliant. We’re designed to be active and engaged. And we know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice—doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.”
― Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Expanding upon Seth’s suggestion to create arbitrary deadlines, perhaps we must also consider why we are pursuing our current project in the first place.

I suspect it’s easy for an aspiring doctor to set aside his tendency to procrastinate by keeping visions of a fruitful future in the forefront of his mind. I suppose it’s also easy for a waitress to keep smiling through the long day because she’s doing it to support her child.

However, I trust that it would also work for the woman who is fed up with her boss and simply trying to make it through the day, or the man who is trying to carve out time to pursue his hobby for just an extra hour each day.

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