A deadline is a point in time by which something must be done. Deadlines can be implemented by and for various types of entities, such as individuals and companies, and in various types of domains, such as school and the workplace.
Deadlines can be beneficial in various ways, so it’s worthwhile to understand how to use them effectively. As such, in the following article you will first learn more about deadlines, and see how you can use them yourself as effectively as possible.
Examples of deadlines
An example of a deadline is a project manager saying that the prototype for a certain product has to be ready for testing by a certain date.
Other examples of deadlines are the following:
- Having to hand in a research paper by the end of the week.
- Deciding to finish all your daily work calls by 2 PM each day.
- Committing to losing a certain amount of weight by the beginning of summer.
- Believing that there’s a certain age by which one should achieve certain life goals, such as leaving home and getting married.
Types of deadlines
There are several different types of deadlines, including the following:
- Hard and soft deadlines. Hard (or fixed) deadlines cannot be modified, whereas soft (or flexible) deadlines can sometimes be modified.
- Absolute and relative deadlines. Absolute deadlines are those where there is no value to completing a task once the deadline for it has passed, whereas relative deadlines are those where there might be some value to completing a task after the deadline for it has passed. When it comes to relative deadlines, the value of completing the associated task often decreases as more time passes after the deadline, and there is often a point past which completing the task no longer has any value. For example, in the context of academic assignments, an absolute deadline might mean that the assignment can’t be submitted at all after the deadline has passed, whereas a relative deadline might mean that 10 points will be deducted from the grade for the assignment for each day that it’s late.
- Other-imposed (or external) and self-imposed (or internal) deadlines. Other-imposed deadlines are set by someone other than the person who has to abide by them, whereas self-imposed deadlines are set by those who have to abide by them for themselves. Note that the external/internal distinction may also be used based on whether the enforcement of the deadline involves any external mechanisms; for example, a self-imposed deadline may be considered external if the person who imposed it on themselves asked someone else to hold them accountable.
In addition, deadlines can also be differentiated on other criteria, such as:
- Whether the deadline marks a point by or at which something needs to actively be done (e.g., undertake a certain action), or the point by or at which some goal needs to be achieved (e.g., pass a certain threshold).
- Whether the deadline is concrete (e.g., “by Friday at 5”) or abstract (e.g., “by the end of the week”). Deadlines generally fall somewhere on the concrete-abstract spectrum (e.g. “by Friday at 5” is more concrete than “by Friday”, which is more concrete than “by the end of the week”).
- Whether achieving the deadline is associated with any consequences, and if so, what consequences specifically (e.g., positive consequences, such as a reward for getting something done by the deadline, or negative consequences, such as a punishment for not getting something done by the deadline). Other considerations may also play a role in this regard, such as the likelihood of the consequence being enforced.
Finally, while deadlines are generally directly time-based, meaning that they are based on a specific point in time (e.g., a date), they can also be based on other things. For example, a company can have a deadline to launch a new product once their competitor launches a similar product, even if they don’t know when that will be.
The psychology and benefits of deadlines
The key benefit of deadlines is that they can prompt people to take action in a timely manner, and consequently reduce the likelihood of procrastination. They can do this through various mechanisms, including the following:
- Making goals and tasks feel more concrete. For example, saying “I will do this task by the end of the week” makes a goal feel more concrete than saying “I will do this task later”, which generally increases the likelihood that you will take action on time.
- Creating or increasing urgency. For example, knowing that you have an upcoming deadline can create enough pressure to help you overcome issues such as lack of motivation.
- Creating or increasing commitment. For example, setting a deadline for some task and associating some consequences with it can increase your commitment to completing the task.
In addition, deadlines and the act of planning and setting them can also be beneficial in other ways.
For example, if you have to study for a test, setting intermediate deadlines by which you have to study different parts of the material can help you figure out what exactly you should study and when. Furthermore, planning this in advance means that when it’s time to study, you can focus on studying, rather than on planning what to study.
Similarly, setting a deadline by which you have to publish a certain work can help ensure that you won’t spend more time on it than necessary.
Note that many of these benefits are interrelated. This means, for example, that planning which deadlines to set for a task can make it more concrete, which in turn can increase your commitment to it and increase the pressure that you feel to complete it on time.
Overall, the key benefit of deadlines is that they prompt people to take action in a timely manner through various mechanisms, such as making goals feel more concrete, creating a sense of urgency, and increasing commitment. In addition, deadlines can have other benefits, such as helping people plan in advance, and many of these benefits are interrelated.
Note: deadlines can also influence people when it comes to domains that are very different from personal productivity, time management, and goal settings. This includes, for example, consumer decisions and negotiations.
The limitations and dangers of deadlines
Though deadlines can sometimes be beneficial, these benefits don’t always occur, for example in cases where the deadline doesn’t prompt people to take action on time. Furthermore, deadlines can also lead to various issues, such as anxiety, stress, reduced interest in the task, and resentment toward whatever is responsible for the deadline.
How to set optimal deadlines
When setting deadlines for yourself and others, there are various things that you can do to ensure that the deadlines are as optimal as possible, in the sense that they help you achieve the goals that you want to achieve by using the deadlines, while minimizing potential issues.
Specifically, the first thing you should generally do before setting a deadline is assess the situation, to consider factors such as:
- Who will the deadline apply to?
- What task will the deadline be associated with?
- What do you hope to achieve by applying the deadline?
Then, you can take all these factors into account when considering what’s the best way to apply a deadline in your particular case, for example when it comes to figuring out what’s the most effective way to enforce it. Furthermore, this can help you determine whether having a deadline is even the best course of action in your particular situation, since there are case where not having deadlines can be preferable.
In addition, when setting deadlines, you should generally make sure that they abide by the following guidelines:
- Deadlines should be appropriate. This means that the deadline shouldn’t give too little or too much time to complete a task or achieve a goal, since having too little time can lead to issues such as stress and compromised work quality, while having too much time can lead to issues such as wasted resources and increased procrastination. As such, when setting deadlines, you should strive to give as much time as needed, rather than as much time as you can, while potentially leaving some margin of error available for any unexpected issues.
- Deadlines should be concrete. This is because people are more likely to follow through on deadlines that are concrete (e.g., “by Friday at 5”) than on those that are abstract (e.g., “sometime this week”).
- Deadlines should be meaningful. This means that the deadline should be able to influence people’s behavior, for example by involving an incentive (e.g., reward or punishment) that is substantial enough to motivate them.
Finally, when setting deadlines, you should also keep in mind the following:
- It can sometimes be beneficial to write down deadlines. This can make the deadlines feel more concrete and meaningful than keeping them in your head. Furthermore, this can also have various other benefits, such as increased accountability in the workplace.
- It can sometimes be beneficial to set intermediate deadlines. For example, if you have to hand in a large paper at the end of the semester, you can give yourself intermediate 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 can allow you to benefit from the pressure of upcoming deadlines multiple times on your way to achieving your overarching goal, and can help you plan how to break large tasks into manageable steps.
- Longer deadlines can be counterproductive. For example, past a certain point, giving people more time to complete a project can substantially reduce their efficiency without leading to any improvements in the quality of their work. This can be attributed to various causes, such as temporal discounting, which means that people will not feel as motivated by deadlines that are far in the future, and by Parkinson’s law, which denotes that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
- It can sometimes be reasonable to modify deadlines, but you should be cautious about this. The potential benefit of modifying deadlines is that doing so can allow you to deal with various issues, such as unexpected delays that you encounter while working. However, there are also potential downsides to modifying deadlines, such as that this can reduce their effectiveness and consequently increase the likelihood of procrastination. As such, while you can consider modifying deadlines in some cases, you should make sure to carefully assess the situation beforehand, to determine if this is truly the best course of action, in both the short term and the long term.
- Consider using deadlines together with other techniques. Though deadlines can be beneficial on their own, it can often be better to use them together with other techniques and concepts. This can include other productivity techniques, such as the Napoleon technique, as well as various other types of techniques, such as debiasing techniques that can help you assess situations rationally.
Overall, to set optimal deadlines, you should assess the situation, to consider factors such as who the deadline will apply to and what you hope to achieve with it. Then, you should generally make sure that the deadline is appropriate (i.e., doesn’t involve too much or too little time), concrete (i.e., defined in clear terms), and meaningful (i.e., is able to influence people’s behavior, generally through an associated incentive). In addition, keep in mind that it can be beneficial to write deadlines down and set intermediate deadlines, that longer deadlines can be counterproductive, that it’s sometimes reasonable to modify deadlines (but you should be cautious about doing so), and that it can be beneficial to use other relevant techniques together with deadlines.
Summary and conclusions
- A deadline is a point in time by which something must be done.
- The key benefit of deadlines is that they prompt people to take action in a timely manner through various mechanisms, such as making goals feel more concrete and creating a sense of urgency, and they can also have other benefits, such as helping people plan in advance.
- Whether or not deadlines are beneficial depends on various personal and situational factors, and there are also cases where they can lead to issues, such as anxiety, stress, reduced interest, and resentment toward whatever is responsible for the deadline.
- To set optimal deadlines, you should assess the situation, to consider factors such as who the deadline will apply to and what you hope to achieve with it, and then you should generally make sure that each deadline is appropriate (i.e., doesn’t involve too much or too little time), concrete (i.e., defined in clear terms), and meaningful (i.e., is able to influence people’s behavior, generally through an associated incentive).
- When setting deadlines, keep in mind that it can be beneficial to write deadlines down and set intermediate deadlines, that longer deadlines are often counterproductive, that it’s sometimes reasonable to modify deadlines (but you should be cautious about doing so), and that it can be beneficial to use other relevant techniques together with deadlines.