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« The 10-Minute Writing Practice | Main | One Thing at a Time »

The Problem with Deadlines

I remember reading a few years ago that research has shown that if you want your employees to finish projects on time, they are much more likely to do so if you set a series of intermediate deadlines. The result will be not only a greatly increased chance that the work will be completed by the final deadline, but also that the work will be of higher quality.

The research also looked at what happens when we set deadlines for ourselves. Giving yourself intermediate deadlines had a similar effect. If you have given yourself the task of writing a book by 1 February 2005, you are more likely to succeed if you split it down something like this:

Write outline by 15 October

Write rough draft by 30 November

Write second draft by 15 January

Final draft completed by 1 February

However the research found that, although setting one’s own deadlines did have an effect, it was much less effective than having them set for you externally.

The problem with deadlines we have set for ourselves is that our minds know that they are not “real” deadlines. They are just ones that we have arbitrarily set. So, in the above example, as 15 October approaches and we still haven’t done anything about writing the outline, we don’t feel the sense of urgency about meeting the deadline that we would if we had to hand the results in to our boss.

So how can we get the full benefit that comes from deadlines, without having someone standing over us enforcing them?

Here I want to digress for a moment to a boss I used to work for nearly forty years ago. I remember well how, whenever he gave me something to do, he used to ask me “When will you have that done by?” As long as my answer sounded reasonable he would just nod and make a note of my answer. Then he would let me get on with it in my own way in my own time.

When the day came when the project was due he would ask me “Have you finished that job I gave you?” The first couple of times that happened I came up with a hundred and one different reasons why I hadn’t done it yet. He just stopped me in my tracks and said “I don’t want to hear why you haven’t done it. Just tell me when you will have done it.”

Somehow after those first couple of missed deadlines, I was never late for a project again!

Sadly he died recently, but the lesson he taught me all those years ago is still very much alive for me.

So instead of giving yourself an artificial deadline for a project, just ask yourself “When will I have that done by?” Make a note of your answer, and if you haven’t done it by that date don’t bother rehearsing all the excuses about why you haven’t done it. Instead just say “So when will I have done it?”


  1. Select a project that it’s important for you to get on with but which doesn’t have a real externally-imposed deadline.
  2. Decide when you want to have it finished by.
  3. Break it down into several stages, depending on the size of the project.
  4. Take the first stage and ask yourself “When will I have that done by?” Write your answer down on your calendar where you can see it.
  5. If you haven’t finished by the due date, ask yourself “So when will I have done it” and mark the new date in your calendar. And don’t forget to adjust the completion date for the whole project as well.
  6. Repeat as necessary for each stage of the project.

[The original version of this article was published in my newsletter in November 2004]

Reader Comments (4)

Whenever I read about deadlines, I think of one of my favourite quotes of all time (by one of my favourite authors) :
"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by" -- Douglas Adams
February 7, 2007 at 9:39 | Unregistered CommenterRitz
What if you set the sub-goals and sub-tasks dates first?
Setting the project completion date first is just "a guess," and you have to go though this interactive top-down trial and error process in order to figure out the realistic dates. Why not just do the bottom-up approach?
June 7, 2007 at 4:10 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Whether it makes sense to work out the final goal or the sub-goals first depends on how the project is presented to you. You would tackle the planning in a different way if someone tasked you as follows:

a. I want you to finish the project by the end of next month

b. I want you to do this project as quickly as possible. When will you have it done by?

In the first case you know when it has to be finished, so now you have to work out when you are going to do the various stages..

In the second case you have no fixed deadline, so you have to work out how long it will take.

I suggest that when you are giving yourself an arbitrary date to finish something by, you are closer to case a. than to case b. You will be saying to yourself something like "I am going to get my house painted by the end of next month", rather than "How long is it going to take to get my house painted?"

June 7, 2007 at 8:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Good tips, Mark, Thank you. I've just started using GANTT charts and have one right beside me now for a project. The trick is to remember to look at it regularly (!). Reminders in the electronic diary that sound an alert help too.
January 25, 2012 at 8:25 | Unregistered CommenterPatricia McBride

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