Behavioural scientists and researchers argue that deadlines are actually a good thing and that they significantly boost the productivity of those facing them. According to Dan Ariely, an intriguing case demonstrating the importance of deadlines happened recently in the UK.
The Case of UK Research Funding
The organization that funds science in Britain used to have two submission deadlines per year. After these deadlines, a panel of experts would review all applications and distribute grants to the best proposals. Somebody must have asked the deadline question (“Are these deadlines really necessary?”) because this organization, after years of such practice, decided to do without the deadlines completely. They announced that they will accept submissions at any point during the year, and that completed applications will be assessed on the same schedule as before.
As soon as this policy came into force, the number of grant applications dropped significantly. It seems that the fact that scientists could now choose when to submit their applications caused them to procrastinate quite a bit. This in turn resulted in much fewer applications in total. In effect, this relatively minute change of policy may have caused a major slowdown in British scientific progress.
The response was quick and efficient: deadlines were reinstated soon after and everything — including scientists’ stress levels — went back to normal.
The Case of College Students
Another experiment had to do with students’ paper deadlines. Students who were asked to hand in three works at three different dates evenly spread out throughout the semester ended up having better grades than their fellows who were allowed to hand in all three works just before the end of the semester.
The former earned fewer late-submission penalties and the quality of their work was slightly better. The latter, despite being encouraged to submit early, usually found themselves writing the three papers at the same time at the end of the semester, struggling to keep up with many other classes and final projects.
This case illustrates that it is in the best interest of the students, as well as the teacher, to lay out specific deadlines for each paper. This strategy may seem the more stressful at first glance, but it really seems to help fight humanity’s innate propensity to procrastinate.
The Behavioural Approach
You can surely recall any number of marketing messages claiming that something is a “limited time offer” or that a coupon is “good only until” a certain date. This framing of an offer has measurable effects on customer conversion.
If this works so well for businesses and their customers, why not become one’s own customer? Following this logic, imposing artificial deadlines on oneself may be beneficial to the amount (and even quality) of work we do. If we manage to increase our productivity in the right areas of our lives, we certainly have a chance to improve the overall quality of our lives. We may even end up with spare resources (time and energy) that we can then invest into our relationships, families, learning, or a budding business.
A third group of students in the above experiment was asked to select their three deadlines at their own discretion, but no later than the end of the semester. Their selected dates were then recorded by the lecturer and the students were required to adhere to them. Astonishingly, only a handful of students selected the smallest-risk, end-of-the-year date for all three papers. Most students wisely selected three different deadlines for themselves, knowing that the tangible deadlines and the late-submission penalties would motivate them to finish their papers early.
Again, this behavioural approach paid off, and the students with deadlines scored better than their classmates.
So, if you think that you may have trouble completing a task on time, set yourself a deadline. Even self-imposed deadlines are better than no deadline. Good thing I set myself a deadline to finish this article, don’t you think?