Why you should be setting yourself deadlines

In Professor Dan Ariely’s experiment at MIT, three classes were given three weeks to finish three essays. Class A were asked to hand in all their work at the end of three weeks, Class B were asked to pick three different deadlines and stick to them, and Class C were given specific dates over a three week period. 

Which class procrastinated the least and which gained the best marks? Class C. Perhaps unsurprisingly, but having hard deadlines to work to, especially when they are spread out, can really help you concentrate on the task at hand, finish it on time and move onto the next one. 

However Class B, who had to pick their own deadlines, also outperformed Class A. They were free to choose their own timings, but knowing that they would procrastinate, they picked dates that were also spread out so they could concentrate on each essay one after the other. 

Class A students put off their work until the last moment and performed worst at the same time.

You might be thinking, well these findings are obvious, but they do help us think about how we should be managing our time. If setting ourselves deadlines can make such a difference to our performance, why aren’t we all doing it?

The Retreating Deadline Method

If you really want to make sure you get things done, you could use Cal Newport’s ‘retreating deadline’ method. This involves:

  1. Shifting all your due dates at least one day earlier on your calendar, although the further in advance the better, plus you can arrange your dates so you are not overwhelmed with work on certain weeks. 
  2. This obviously doesn’t include real dates such as exams and meetings.
  3. Construct your work schedule to finish by the new date, as if it were real. 

It’s a great idea as it takes the time pressure element off you so you feel far less stressed. You’ll also gain a sense of self control by freeing yourself from a “last minute” mindset. Furthermore, a small and subtle change that requires no more work than you had before.

How to set yourself deadlines.

1. Analyse the project

Before setting any deadlines, ask yourself:

  • When does this project actually have to be in by?
  • How long will it take me to complete?

Understanding the scope of the project will then give you the ability to assess your overall timeframe. It’s also good to know that it’s better to be conservative on your estimates of how long things will take, as too much time left over outweighs too little. When you’ve got a firmer grasp on how long things take, you can always update your timings accordingly. 

2. What’s in your calendar?

Once you’ve defined the scope of the project, you can start to see where it’s going to fit into your day and week. Ask yourself:

  • What meetings have you got on?
  • What other deadlines are you working towards?
  • Where do I have long stretches when I can block out time?

Once you’ve factored out certain days and times you can then look at how your new project will fit in around them. Breaking down your project, you can fit certain tasks into your calendar. Depending on your system, you might literally have time-specific tasks, or you might have a running to do list of things that need to be completed that week. 

3. Give yourself accountability

Even though you’ve set yourself a deadline, without having any accountability, there’s every chance you’ll miss it. If you postpone it, no one will ever know, will they? That’s why you need to let others know that you’ve got deadlines to reach. 

According to the American Society of Training and Development, people who pursue their goals with accountability partners have an average success rate of 95%. Achieving what we’ve told others we will make feel productive, focused and reliable, whereas missing a deadline can make us feel like the opposite. And we all want to feel good about ourselves. 

Accountability can come from colleagues, friends or family, while you could also let all your social media circles know about it. Apps such as Stickk also tell the whole world what you are intending to achieve and take accountability to a whole new level!

4. Learn from your past projects

Past projects help you identify where you make easy mistakes, when you start to procrastinate and how much you can get done over a certain period of time. Refine your deadlines based on your past experience to accomplish even more over time.

5. Reward yourself

Reward yourself for completing a project. Having the promise of a little luxury of a day for yourself can pull you through the hard slog. Just mind that it don’t get out of hand, and you’re not rewarding yourself for a day spent at the office or a workout at the gym! They have to be for bigger projects with a bigger incentive.