Setting deadlines never comes easily to me. No matter how much time I leave to complete my assignment, I’m often scrambling to meet each deadline.
Without that slack, we’re likely to see less creativity and less innovation
I know I’m in good company with a world full of procrastinators. But recently, I’ve been experimenting with giving myself less time to do the same amount of work. In order to be more productive (and procrastinate less), I’ve consciously been setting more stringent deadlines when it comes to work. An hour-long call is now done in 30 minutes. Writing assignments that would take me three days in the past now must be completed in two-and-a-half. I use a calendar alarm to remind me to move on to the next work assignment.
For most workers, shortening a deadline to tackle repeat tasks can be a trick to boost productivity, said Craig Smith, founder of Trinity Insight, an internet optimisation firm in Philadelphia. Last year, Smith experimented with shaving off a week from a project deadline for a team of 17 employees. It turns out that his long-time employees didn’t miss the extra time originally allotted for the project. “The more familiarity, the more you can push the envelope,” he said.
But when it comes to work that’s perhaps repetitive in process (interview, research, write, edit, deliver) but not in content (it’s a new topic every single time), it’s not as easy, I found. In some cases, simply creating a stricter time limit has made it easier to stay productive when I work against a deadline. But more often, I’ve found myself missing these marks — some, like getting a chatty interview subject off the phone at minute 31 have been hard to achieve. Then I feel as if I’ve failed when the work (inevitably) takes longer.
It’s easy to get caught up in [only setting] short term goals. You can suffer burnout
To be sure, fake deadline-setting isn’t a new concept. Parkinson’s Law, the idea that workload expands to fill whatever time is available for completion, originated 60 years ago. The inverse — tasks will take up as little time as you have — can be true as well.
In theory that means any of us should be able to simply sprint through a daily schedule full of short lead deadlines. But we’ve all seen how that plays out in practice. Not so well, usually.
It’s not deadlines, it’s how you set them
It turns out that it might not be the deadlines themselves, but the way we try to trick ourselves into getting work done without scrambling last minute. There’s an art to setting shorter deadlines and it’s not as simple as I had imagined.
There are many advantages to purposely setting short deadlines properly, Bradley Staats, associate professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School in the US told me during a conversation I’d allotted 25 minutes for (5 minutes less than I would have in the past).
“By restricting ourselves, we force ourselves to get it done and we can often streamline things and cut corners where it’s not a problem,” said Staats, who studies the behavioural science of learning and productivity. And of course, setting tighter limits can give workers (myself included) a sense of discipline and self-control. “We probably underestimate the benefits we get from this,” he added.
For most workers, shortening a deadline to tackle repeat tasks can be a trick to boost productivity
Building a schedule entirely of short deadlines, though, is unproductive in the long term, because it doesn’t leave time for ‘slack’ time – the period of so-called wasted time that helps us come up with innovative ideas and solutions, Staats explained.
“Without that slack, we’re likely to see less creativity and less innovation,” he said. “There’s a chance that what we throw out [by working quickly] was important to the effectiveness or the solution.”
A happy medium
Finding a balance is key, according to Ryan Holiday, an Austin-based media strategist and author of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Holiday balances writing with the day-to-day tasks of running a creative agency. His entire calendar is structured around the idea of setting stringent deadlines. But the blocks of time are more fluid, with certain types of work filling the blocks, but not just, say 30 minutes for one thing and 45 for the next on the list.
When working from home, Holiday spends the first half of his day doing long-term work, including writing or brainstorming, without strict time limits. After lunch he focuses on tasks with shorter deadlines including calls, meetings and setting aside time to answer emails in 30-minute increments. Working on the most important stuff in the mornings, allows him to power through the short deadlines he sets for easier tasks.
“It’s easy to get caught up in [only setting] short-term goals,” said Holiday. “You can suffer burnout.”
Deadline-setting is important, though, with longer projects, especially creative things which never feel quite finished without imposing limits, Holiday said. “With short-term deadlines you can’t get consumed with the endless possibilities,” Holiday said. Creating more stringent timing on tasks also gives a sense of accomplishment (something I can attest to when deleting tasks from my daily to-do list).
The key, above all, is not to set yourself up for playing catch-up. Prior to setting shorter deadlines, track how long the task typically takes (online tools such as Rescuetime.com or the Toggl app). Since most of us are repeating similar tasks, knowing the length of time these typically take can make it easier to set a more accurate deadline or whittle down a timeframe you think is too wide.
Staats recommended that I power through the initial tasks I have under a tight deadline (like a first draft of a story) and then leave less structured time to review and analyse my writing. This applies more widely than writing. In tech, for example, a programmer can write an initial round of code under a short deadline and then leave unstructured time to edit and refine it, he said.
Of course, the question of whether to even set a stricter deadline is a little trickier. If you know the intended outcome, it pays to set a shorter time limit, Staats said. “Someone needs to understand what is it that they are trying to accomplish,” to take more control of the time it takes, he said.
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