Posted By Tzlil
By Phyllis Korkki
AT a meeting last Tuesday, I told my colleagues that I would finish this column — which is about deadlines — by noon on Thursday. I spent part of Tuesday afternoon searching the word “deadlines” on Google, but didn’t make much progress. By late afternoon, I felt a tiny knot of fear in my stomach. What if I let my co-workers down? So I wrote something silly just to get started. This paragraph.
During my Googling I found out thatDan Ariely is an expert on deadlines, and I forced myself to contact him because I had promised to get this work done.
Making that declaration was a good move, as it turns out. Publicly committing to meeting a deadline is a powerful motivator because it puts your reputation on the line, said Mr. Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of “Predictably Irrational.”
Workers who fail to meet deadlines risk the disapproval — and sometimes the wrath — of their managers and colleagues. Still, some people will blow a deadline, rationalizing that there is both a “deadline” and a “real deadline.” They will use whatever devices and excuses they can muster to buy more time.
But what about assignments that don’t have clear deadlines? Or projects that are so large that they must be done in increments, so that pulling an all-nighter isn’t an option? Or creative goals that no one much cares about, except you?
I know people who, through boundless narcissism, single-minded obsession or unfathomable self-discipline can complete big projects without deadlines. Many of us, though, need a looming threat to finish major work.
People respond well to deadlines because meeting them provides a distinct feeling of having achieved something within a time frame. “It’s a good way to keep score,” Professor Ariely said.
It is possible to motivate yourself, he said, by announcing a deadline to others — perhaps on Facebook or on Twitter. Not meeting the deadline would then feel like breaking a promise, he said: “It does say something about your character.”
A mere announcement on Twitter, though, would hardly be enough for die-hard procrastinators. If you are one of them, consider creating a situation that has real consequences, Professor Ariely said. Give a friend $100 and say, “If I don’t meet my deadline you can keep this.” Or, he said, try the prospect of public humiliation. Make a bet with your friends: if you don’t meet the deadline, you must run through the streets naked.
Perhaps Professor Ariely has friends who really would force him to run naked through the streets of Durham, N.C. My friends are warm and supportive and would say “that’s O.K.” if I didn’t meet my self-imposed deadline, which, of course, makes them wonderful friends but not good enforcers.
I have always wanted to write a book, however, and it occurs to me: Why not hire someone to hector me? Services like TaskRabbit have sprung up to help people with all manner of tasks, including fixing their computers and doing their laundry. Surely a stranger would be willing, for a small fee, to call or text me and say: “Have you written those 500 words you said you would write by 8 a.m.?” It’s worth a try. A shaming e-mail if I don’t do my assignment should be included in the price.
Here may be the secret to meeting a big self-imposed deadline: First, divide the work into smaller tasks and set deadlines for every one of them. Then find a tough and reliable person to hold you accountable for meeting each one. Make meeting the big deadline — not achieving perfection — the ultimate goal. Voilà. You’re making no guarantees of quality, but perhaps your work can be improved later.
THIS column, for example, is nowhere near as good as it was as a vague idea in my mind’s eye. There’s so much more I wanted to cover, including the etymology of the word“deadline.” (O.K., I’ll throw it in: It was formerly “a boundary around a military prison beyond which a prisoner could not venture without risk of being shot by the guards,” according to Dictionary.com.)
I wanted to discuss the link between death and deadlines, and whether death awareness affects people at work, a topic that has been explored by Prof. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
But I ran out of time, and that’s the point. This column — inferior though it is to what I had imagined — is done, and it’s done because I had a deadline.