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How to make deadlines motivating, not stressful
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As new research findings shed light on the psychology of deadlines, we can learn ways that they can be used to increase focus and boost perseverance.
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There’s no doubt that work deadlines can be stressful. When you have too many, you can feel overwhelmed. And looming deadlines have a habit of encouraging last-minute dashes for the finish line, like when students pull ‘all-nighters’ in an attempt to achieve weeks’ worth of essay writing in a handful of long, adrenaline-fuelled hours.

Yet there’s no question deadlines can serve a positive psychological function – after all, without them, many students might never even finish their work.

You can see evidence for the power of deadlines in the ‘real world’, too. For instance, in 2015, when the US National Science Foundation dropped its usual twice-yearly deadlines for grant submissions in geoscience, as part of an attempt to help the overburdened vetting system, the effect was dramatic. Annual submissions fell by 59%; without the pressure of a deadline, it seems many scientists lacked the urgency and motivation to deliver their applications.

As new research findings shed light on the psychology of deadlines, we can learn ways that deadlines can be used to increase focus and boost perseverance. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – as many of us adapt to unstructured days working from home – the lessons are particularly timely.

‘Goal gradients’

Part of the motivating power of deadlines has to do with what psychologists call ‘goal gradients’. The nearer you get to completing a task, the greater ‘bang for your buck’ you get for your effort.

Social psychologist Nira Liberman and her colleagues at Tel Aviv University have been studying the psychological effects of deadlines. To help us understand ‘goal gradients’, they give the example of how, when you read the first chapter of a 10-chapter book, it takes you just one tenth of the way to completing the book, yet when you have two paragraphs to go, the same or similar amount of reading effort will take you 50% further toward finishing.

Part of the motivating effect of a deadline, then, is that it provides you with constant feedback on how much further you have to go until task completion, enabling goal gradients to have their effect.

If you feel like the last part of the book goes a lot faster than the first, you’re likely experiencing a ‘goal gradient’ (Credit: Getty Images)

If you feel like the last part of the book goes a lot faster than the first, you’re likely experiencing a ‘goal gradient’ (Credit: Getty Images)

“As less of the task remains to be done, each unit of effort is perceived as more effective in that it closes a larger proportion of the gap to the goal,” Liberman’s team write. (A similar principle also helps explain why charitable donations ramp up as a fund-raising effort nears its goal.)

Another popular theory is that, as we approach a deadline, or get near to completing a task, this has the effect of reducing ‘opportunity costs’ – essentially, the lure of all the other things you could be doing instead. After all, if I have just one hour left before the deadline for finishing this article, there is not a great deal else I could use the time for, so I may as well plough on. However, without that line in the sand, there would be an almost infinite number of appealing things that I could be doing instead of working on the article. 

Liberman’s team recently demonstrated the galvanising power of knowing when a task will be finished. They recruited dozens of undergrads to complete thousands of trials of a tricky computer-based mental task that required constant concentration. The whole boring exercise took about 90 minutes to complete. Crucially, the researchers provided half the participants with constant feedback on their progress through the exercise –  both how many trials they had to go in each block of 240 trials, and after each block, how many blocks they had left to go. The other participants, in contrast, had no idea how many more trials or blocks they had to do.

There was a striking difference in the performance of the two groups – the students who knew how much further they had to go reached a superior level of peak performance in terms of their speed and accuracy, and yet they said they felt less fatigued, and they took shorter breaks between blocks.

“We think that participants in our experiment who did not know when the task would end conserved their efforts,” Nira Liberman, one of the study co-authors told me. “Imagine going on a journey that is very long and tedious with no end in sight. In situations of uncertainty people tend to think of the ‘worst case scenario’ – so in our study they made a grim estimate of how much energy they needed to conserve.” In contrast, she added, because the other group knew when the task was going to end, they were able to perform an “end spurt”, similar to how runners are able to ramp up their effort for the final mile or when they see the finishing line in the distance.

If you know when a task will end, you can finish with a burst of extra effort – much like a runner at the finish line of a race (Credit: Getty Images)

If you know when a task will end, you can finish with a burst of extra effort – much like a runner at the finish line of a race (Credit: Getty Images)

Getting down to it

As we fire up our computers for the next session of remote working during the coronavirus pandemic, what lessons might this research have for our routines?

Part of the challenge is the newfound lack of structure to our days and weeks. It will vary across industries, of course, but many workers might find their usual targets and priorities postponed indefinitely, creating a feeling that they are simply drifting along, waiting for things to return to normal.

Rather than sitting down for an open-ended session, set yourself an initial deadline of, say, one hour and get as much done as you can in that time

To combat this, Liberman says that if you can impose deadlines on yourself, you should certainly try. “Deadlines and progress monitoring help keep us in focus and advance our work,” she says.

There are different ways you could apply this advice. Rather than sitting down for an open-ended session, set yourself an initial deadline of, say, one hour and get as much done as you can in that time. Especially as you near the end of the session, you will be less distracted by the lure of other tasks around the home because there will not be many other tasks you could complete in such a short time window.

Managers also may want to think about giving their home-working staff deadlines to work to in order to help their focus. On a practical level, giving people a deadline can help them navigate competing demands at home – for example, they can tell their partner that they really must work this afternoon because they have a looming deadline.

Deadlines can make us stressed, no doubt. But they are also galvanising and useful for pacing our efforts

Such top-down deadlines are not without risks, however. They can rob work of its inherent reward and make staff stressed and feel they do not have autonomy. So, it’s a balancing act.

Liberman’s collaborator Maayan Katzir suggests that an alternative to deadlines is to provide staff with “mild progress indications”, especially as they near task completion. “For example,” she told me, “if a team needs to produce a certain amount of units, then, without imposing a deadline, merely informing everyone on the progress nearing the end could lead to a mild motivation enhancement.”

Deadlines can make us stressed, no doubt. But they are also galvanising and useful for pacing our efforts. We’re living through strange days during which time feels unstructured – some have likened it to that odd period between Christmas and new year. The new findings suggest the strategic use of deadlines, and paying extra attention to monitoring our progress toward set goals, could be one solution that helps us stay focused as one week blends into the next.

Dr Christian Jarrett is a senior editor at Aeon magazine. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2021.

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