On the surface, long-term deadlines appear to be absolutely necessary for busy professionals. However, what if they were simply an invitation to procrastinate?
Without the urgency of an impending deadline, we often put off long-term tasks until right before they are due. As Nicholas G. Carr wisely pointed out, some people view the deadline as the start date rather than the end date.
Long-term deadlines don’t always give us more time to work on a task (as they were intended to do). They simply give us a chance to focus on other work. They might even give us a chance to procrastinate.
Dan Airely of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Klaus Wetenbroch of Insead led an experiment demonstrating the power of short-term deadlines. Three different groups were assigned the same complex proofreading assignment. The goal was to catch as many corrections as possible and participants were to be paid accordingly.
Group A was given a single deadline, three weeks out. Group B was given interim, weekly deadlines for completing portions of the work and the same final three-week deadline. Group C was given the same three-week deadline and encouraged to set their own interim deadlines.
Not surprisingly, Group B fared the best. They caught the most number of errors (136) and submitted their work largely on time (0.5 days late). On the other hand, group A fared the worst. They caught the least number of errors (70) and were 12 days late, on average. Group C landed somewhere in the middle, having caught 104 errors and handing in their work 6.5 days late.
Other studies have illustrated similar results. Short-term deadlines lead to higher quality and more timely work. Short-term deadlines also help us to avoid procrastinating.
This is something to keep in mind as we manage both our independent work and other people. We should be breaking big projects down into smaller chunks with short-term deadlines and attainable goals.
Short-term deadlines help maintain focus on a task, leverage the power of momentum and ultimately leads to higher quality work. Short-term, interim deadlines also help to avoid a huge pile of work bunching up at the end which are stressful for everyone involved.
At the end of the day, nothing drives productivity like a deadline.