Deadlines: How Effective Time Constraints Can Boost Productivity

How Deadlines Can Help You Be More Productive


Deadlines are a simple but powerful time-management technique that can help you become much more productive if you know how to implement them properly.

In the following article, you will first learn a bit about the concept of deadlines, and about why using them can be beneficial. Then, you will see guidelines for setting good deadlines, which will allow you to make the most out of the deadlines that you set.


What is a deadline

A deadline is a particular point in time before which you must perform a task or accomplish an objective.

Examples of deadlines include the following:

  • Deciding to finish all your daily work calls by 2 PM.
  • Having to hand in a research paper by the end of the week.
  • Committing to losing a certain amount of weight by the beginning of summer.

As such, deadlines are a time-management technique, which is meant to ensure that things get done within a specific timeframe. There are two main types of deadlines:

  • Hard deadlines, which are fixed, and cannot be altered.
  • Soft deadlines, which are flexible, and can be modified in some cases.

Deadlines can be either self-imposed, which means that you set them for yourself, or they can be external, which means that they are set for you by someone else.


Why deadlines are effective

Research shows that deadlines can help reduce the likelihood that you will procrastinate both when they are self-imposed as well as when they are external.

The first reason why deadlines are beneficial is that they help make your goals feel more concrete, by attaching them to a specific timeline. This is valuable from a cognitive perspective, since we are more likely to actively pursue goals that we perceive as concrete, compared to goals that we perceive as abstract.

For example, saying “I want to run a marathon” is an abstract goal, and you are therefore less likely to accomplish it than you are to accomplish a more concrete goal with a deadline, such as “I want to run a marathon by the end of next year”.

In addition, deadlines also help you pursue your goals and complete tasks in a timely manner by serving as a precommitment device. Essentially, this means that deadlines help you commit to a future plan of action that will be beneficial for you in the long term, in cases where you know that you are unlikely to successfully pursue your goals otherwise.

For example, if you have an important assignment to complete and you know that you will likely postpone it repeatedly because you tend to procrastinate on social media, setting a series of early deadlines by which you have to finish different parts of the assignments could help you get started on it early, instead of allowing you to wait with everything until the last minute.

Finally, deadlines can also help you get things done on time by providing you with structure. Essentially, this means that using deadlines can help you plan out your future actions in advance.

For example, if you have to study for a test, giving yourself deadlines by which you have to finish studying different sections of the material can help you figure out in advance what you will be studying and when you will be studying for it. This will help you focus on actually studying rather than on figuring out what to study next, and will ensure that you don’t spend too much time on a specific section, while neglecting other important parts of the material.

Overall, deadlines can help you get things done by helping make your goals more concrete, by serving as precommitment devices, and by providing you with structure. Note that these benefits are all interrelated, since a better structure, for example, can also help your goals feel more concrete.


How to set effective deadlines

So far, we saw that using deadlines can help you become more productive. However, not all deadlines are created equal, and if you want to make the most out of the deadlines that you set, there are a few guidelines that you should follow:

  • Deadlines should be concrete. You are much more likely to abide by concrete deadlines, which is why you should avoid using deadlines that are vague. For example, “sometime next month” is a vague deadline and should therefore be avoided, while “tomorrow at 11 AM” is a concrete deadline and can therefore be used.
  • Deadlines should be realistic. When choosing a deadline for a task, you should pick one that gives you a sufficient amount of time to complete the task, since choosing unrealistic time constraints will cause you to compromise the quality of your work, give up, or ignore the deadline entirely. For example, if you give yourself only two days to write an entire thesis, you will probably end up being burned out and producing a low-quality paper.
  • Deadlines should be meaningful. A deadline only works if you actually abide by it. Therefore, you should make sure that you can’t just ignore your deadlines, and that there is some motivation for you to adhere to it, which can be either internal or external. For example, you can bet your friend that if you don’t finish cleaning the house over the weekend, then you will owe them $5.

This means that you should generally write down any deadlines that you have, since doing so will help the deadlines feel more concrete, as well as more meaningful. You can write down the deadline anywhere you want, whether it’s in a to-do app or in a notebook, as long as that location is accessible.

In addition, there are a few other considerations that you should take into account when setting deadlines for yourself:

  • Deadlines can be modified when necessary. Though a deadline must be meaningful, it’s acceptable to modify deadlines as you make progress on your work, as long as the reason for doing so is that the modification is necessary and beneficial, and isn’t just an excuse to procrastinate by postponing the task.
  • Deadlines can be external if necessary. Deadlines given to you by someone else can sometimes work better than self-imposed deadlines, since they tend to have greater consequences for failure. If this is difficult to accomplish, you can set self-imposed deadlines for yourself, and then try to find someone who will hold you accountable if you end up missing them.
  • You should generally break up large tasks into small subtasks. Breaking large tasks into small subtasks, each of which has its own deadline, can make those tasks more actionable and more concrete, and can help you create a detailed plan of action, that encourages you to get started on your tasks early on.

When setting deadlines, you should always make sure to avoid deadlines that encourage you to wait until the last minute, since you want to leave yourself a sufficient safety margin, that gives you enough time to complete your task even if you encounter unexpected difficulties.

One of the best ways to do this is by breaking down large tasks into smaller subtasks, as suggested above, since even if you wait until the last minute to complete each subtask, there is less work for you to get done each time than if you wait until the last minute to get started on the whole thing.

For example, if you have to hand in a large paper at the end of the semester, you can give yourself interim deadlines throughout the semester, each of which signifies a certain period of time by which you have to write a specific part of your paper. This is known as setting proximal goals, and it has been shown to be more effective than having a single, distal goal, at the end of your allotted time limit.

Finally, when it comes to deciding how much time to give yourself, note that even though you should use deadlines that are realistic, you also set deadlines that are as short as possible.

This is because we tend to discount the value of things that are far away from us in the future, a phenomenon known as temporal discounting, which means that setting near deadlines can help you motivate yourself, and avoid procrastination.

Furthermore, according to Parkinson’s law, the more time we set aside in advance for a certain task, the longer we will take to complete it, even if the extra time which we allotted to it wasn’t necessary. This means that setting stricter deadlines can be beneficial, as long as those deadlines are realistic, and as long as they allow you to complete your tasks in a reasonable manner.

As such, a good guideline when it comes to deciding how much time to give yourself when setting a deadline is to give yourself as much time as you need, and not as much time as you can. That is, figure out how long a certain task should realistically take you to complete, and then set a deadline based on that, instead of giving yourself the maximal amount of time that you can.

Note: this guide focuses on how you can set effective deadlines for yourself. However, the same principles hold, for the most part, when you want to motivate others by setting deadlines for them.


Deadlines aren’t a perfect solution

Though deadlines can often help you avoid procrastinating, research also shows that they don’t always work, and there are situations where increased flexibility can be better, in terms of personal productivity.

As such, you should always assess the situation at hand, in order to determine whether setting deadlines will help you or not. When doing this, you should be honest with yourself, and make sure to not avoid deadlines in cases where they can be beneficial, simply because they can be difficult or inconvenient in the short-term.

Finally, remember that deadlines are just one of the many tools that you can use when it comes to being more productive. This means that even in cases where they are effective, you still shouldn’t expect them to solve all your problems. Rather, you should use them together with other productivity-boosting strategies, in order to improve your ability to pursue your goals as much as possible.


Summary and conclusions

  • A deadline is a particular point in time before which you must perform a task or accomplish an objective.
  • Deadlines can help you overcome your tendency to procrastinate by helping your goals feel more concrete, by serving as a precommitment device, and by helping provide you with structure for your future plans.
  • Effective deadlines should be both concrete as well as meaningful, which signifies that they should be tied to a specific point in time and that there should be a strong incentive for you to abide by them.
  • When setting deadlines for yourself, you should give yourself as much time as you need in order to properly accomplish your goal, but not any more than that, which will ensure that you can get your work done by the deadline, but that you won’t end up wasting time unnecessarily.
  • You should divide large goals into small tasks and then assign a specific deadline to each of these tasks, in order to create an actionable plan and encourage yourself to get started on your work early instead of waiting until the last minute.