Everyone has a story about a time when a deadline loomed, and they performed near-miracles to get a project finished. Similarly, we’ve all got a laundry list of things that would be nice to do someday — paint the trim, start that blog, try that Indian restaurant down the street — things which wouldn’t take much time at all, but remain undone because they’ve never been “a priority”.
Deadlines help to create priority.
For people who buy into the D.A.M.N. Goal Framework, the question is not whether to set a deadline, but what deadline to set. The purpose of this article is to offer a few concepts which I’ve found helpful in setting high performance deadlines for ambitious goals or projects.
First Things First — Two Deadlines
When they think of deadlines, most people think of just one kind: the end deadline, the date by which something is due.
But there’s a second deadline one must take into account as well: the starting deadline or the date by which you will begin taking action.
Could you imagine a race without the starting pistol, or a year without new years eve? Clearly defined start times help us understand that something important is about to begin.
They also help us clearly track progress. It’s easier to measure the success of a given course of action when you’re looking back at a clearly defined beginning and ending.
So when you’re defining a goal, be sure to include start and stop dates.
But how do you decide on either? For that, we turn to a humorist who accidentally did something useful.
In the nineteenth century a humorist named Cyrill Northcote Parkinson penned the words “Work expands so as to fill the time allotted for it.”
He was writing about his experience with bureaucrats, but the idea turned out to be so universally true that it has since been coined Parkinson’s Law and applied to a wide range of industries.
The idea behind Parkinson’s Law is that projects tend to take up however much time you give them. As Tim Ferriss wrote in The 4-Hour Workweek, projects also grow in perceived importance and complexity along with the time given for their completion.
In other words, the longer you have to do something, the bigger and more complex the project seems and the longer you will likely take to finish it.
Think back to high school where you were given weeks or months to research and write a ten-page paper. If you were anything like me, the project went something like this:
What’s interesting about this cartoon is that the only time actually needed to do the project was the green bit at the end. So why didn’t we just do that in the beginning, get the task off our plate, and spend the rest of our time watching cat videos on Youtube?
Parkinson’s Law in action.
What would have happened if our teachers assigned the same project over the weekend? According to Parkinson’s Law, there may have been more grumbling, but there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t have gotten done.
I wrote about this extensively in my article on how to fit three semesters worth of classes into four months.
This idea has proven to be so wide spread, so universal, that it’s even coined a number of corollaries including the Horstman’s corollary that “work contracts to fit the time we give it” and the Stock-Sanford corollary, “if you wait until the last minute, it only take a minute to do”.
Parkinson’s Law Forces Priority
Simply put, short deadlines force you to focus only on what’s important. But how short should we go?
It’d be impossible to give a one-size-fits-all answer here, but the practice I recommend is as follows:
When you’ve scoped out the project roughly, ask yourself where you would instinctively place the deadline.
Your first answer will almost always be overly conservative. So, as a thought exercise, proceed to ask yourself, Is there any law of the universe keeping us from getting it done in half the time?
If the answer is no, set that as the new deadline and ask the question again. Keep going until you come up against a real barrier.
In his article on ruthless prioritization, Brandon Chu writes that “there is always always a way to accomplish your goal faster than you currently plan to. Always. You just have to find it.”
If you allow your deadline to help determine the action you will take rather than the other way around you will find that you’re often able to accomplish large things much faster than most people think is possible.
Sprinter or Marathoner?
Early in her podcast series, Gretchin Rubin talks about different working personality types known as Sprinters and Marathoners.
Sprinters are people who work best under tight deadlines. They get a rush of adrenaline and feel most alive when a project is compressed into a short period of time.
Marathoners on the other hand feel very uncomfortable with a looming deadline of any kind. Slow and steady is their preference, and if given a long-term project they will tend to do a bit each day, often finishing well ahead of schedule.
What’s interesting is that both groups need a deadline of some sort in order to do their best work. But the type of deadline set for each will be different, and it’s important to take this into account when planning.
Caveat Emptor on Parkinson’s Law
Tight deadlines alone are not enough to guarantee success. As with all things, there is some finesse involved, especially if you’re working with multiple people.
First, while a deadline can be ambitious, it also has to be believable. It doesn’t have to be comfortable, but people need to think there’s some way to get it done otherwise it can have the opposite effect and rather than spurring meaningful action, people will simply throw their hands up and ride out the project calendar knowing they are doomed from the start.
Second, whether it’s you alone or a team, everyone involved needs to understand why the deadline is what it is.
Is it because there are other things hinging on this goal, and failure to ship by a certain date will cause massive, irreparable harm? Is it because you truly know this project is not that much work, and you want to avoid psyching people out by allowing too much time for its completion? Something else completely?
It’s important to be clear about this, otherwise a deadline can begin to seem arbitrary, uninformed, or worse… selfish.
Finally, I’ll say that there seems to be a maximum capacity on short deadline work. Interest and energy are cyclical, and while you can accomplish quite a bit in a short period of time, you should remember to balance intense work periods with plenty of rest.
Operating on tight deadlines can help to ward off burnout because it avoids the long drawn-out spells of meaningless meetings, email-checking, and web surfing which are tiring but not productive. But jumping from one red alert situation to the next too many times without time off for a break is a recipe for ultimate overwhelm.
Use these to help define meaningful deadlines for your project:
* When should we start? Is there a date that would be best strategically?
* When should we end? Is there any law of physics keeping us from doing it in half the time?
* Why are these deadlines important?