Don't Fall Prey to the 'Deadline Effect' — Try These 7 Productivity Tips Instead

As soon as you set a deadline, work tends to get delayed until right before time expires.

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Canva / Fairygodboss Staff

Sara London for Hive
Sara London for Hive
April 23, 2024 at 8:10AM UTC
It’s crunch time – you once again are burning the midnight oil, working on a deadline you don’t think you can finish. But don’t panic! You can break the cycle. If you always seem to have trouble meeting deadlines, Christopher Cox, author of The Deadline Effect, has some tips and tricks outlined in the book.
“This book is about effective organizations [that] have come up with systems to defeat procrastination without changing basic human psychology,” Cox says. “The problem is that as soon as you set a deadline, work tends to get delayed until right before time expires. There’s a name for this phenomenon: it’s called the deadline effect.”

1. Make sure you rehearse.

To compile his deadline management insights, Cox toured various businesses that required varying deadlines, from large sales to big events. First, he notes how interim deadlines save companies from making many detail-oriented mistakes. These are also called dry-runs or dress rehearsals like you’re preparing for a play.
Cox tells readers how Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten would prepare staff for meal service. They would take new hires and run simulations of the service for office workers, providing immaculately served dishes promptly, all under the supervision of a watchful supervisor.
“These daily checkpoints on the way to the final deadline were a big part of what Vongerichten meant by his “formula,” Cox says. “You can do it a thousand times, but you won’t really be tested until you hit the road, you hit a pothole, and you get doored.”
While life in the office might not allow for dry runs, you can see some tasks as less essential and teachable to prepare you for the more important tasks. If you see every task as something to learn from, you’ll never feel like you’re behind on deadlines once you understand how the arc of certain projects progresses.

2. Rely on your team.

Cox also describes a harrowing tale of working retail at a Best Buy on Thanksgiving Day ­– a deadline for which his cohort was well-prepared. While employees were usually told to upsell to customers, they had a different strategy to meet their goals. On Thanksgiving, it was all about getting people in and out in the fastest way possible.
These supportive and mission-driven team members had one common goal: to survive the shift and give the customers what they wanted. Cox utilized his team’s expertise and calm demeanors to help get the job done.
If you’re stuck meeting deadlines at the last minute, look to your team to provide a sense of stability and encouragement.

3. Flexibility and continuity.

Last-minute changes are also a key part of making sure that deadlines are met. Cox compares this to how a playhouse theater prepares with its understudies. If you don’t let an understudy know about their performance in time, they won’t be ready to go on stage. And if you try to make too many changes to your project before a huge deadline, you’ll turn in something half-finished.
“There was a well-defined moment when revisions could take place,” Cox says. “And that, as it turns out, can make all the difference in whether the final product is a hit or a flop.”
To meet deadlines well, you’ve got to have flexibility in case you bring in an “understudy” of your own. However, you’ve also got to know how to work with what you have when it’s too late to start from scratch.

4. Do it for yourself.

Next, Cox notes how deadlines can be used as incentive-building activities. You might not feel compelled to work hard on a project without a deadline, as it’s entirely self-motivated. But research from the Common Cents Lab shows that with a deadline, you’re more motivated to finish your project – no matter how big or small the rewards are.
The psychology behind this is that it’s hard to talk yourself into working on tasks that are high in immediate costs but low in immediate benefits. However, if you keep in mind that you’re working towards a larger goal (whether that means a larger project or more free time), you can give yourself the pep-talk you need to proceed.

5. Delaying your deadline makes it worse.

Cox then says that if you’re thinking about meeting deadlines, a dark cloud hangs over your head, whether you want it or not: procrastination. But even if you’re tempted to tell your boss that you need an extension on a deadline, it could result in more significant issues down the road.
“It’s not just that people don’t like to do unpleasant tasks,” Cox says. “The problem is that we are time-inconsistent and present-biased: we tend to underestimate both costs and rewards the further they are in the future, a process called hyperbolic discounting.”
Cox says that hyperbolic discounting means drastically underestimating how good you’ll feel when a project is finished. Somehow, one short deadline seems so much worse than the repercussions you’ll reap if that deadline isn’t accomplished. But that’s not the reality; it’s just your perception.

6. Set a realistic timeline.

While you might imagine that a task won’t take too long, meeting your deadlines is partially about setting realistic ones in the first place.
“Most of us are optimists, which might make us better company at the dinner table,” Cox says. “But it means we are lousy at predicting the future. We underestimate the amount of time a project will require. If it’s a project that has a budget, we underestimate the expense as well.”
According to research, even when one sets a timeline in which everything goes as well as possible, only 30 percent are able to meet that deadline. This is known as the “planning fallacy.”
“The planning fallacy is the tendency to seize upon the most optimistic timetable for completing a project and ignore any information that might make you revise that prediction,” Cox says. So don’t be a hero and claim that you’ll turn something around rapidly. You might need extra time to ensure that you’re producing quality output.

7. Don’t repeat history.

Lastly, Cox explores an instance where those who sought to meet deadlines didn’t subscribe to hyperbolic discounting or the planning fallacy. Instead, they learned from their mistakes.
“The problem with our predictions is that we treat each task like it’s a novel problem,” Cox says. “We can only see from left to right: we construct a story about how we will complete our work but ignore evidence from similar projects we or other people have done in the past.”
Cox explores a study in which participants were prompted to think about prior deadlines they’d set for themselves before accomplishing a task. As a result, the predictions for meeting their deadline became much more realistic. If you don’t learn from your history of meeting deadlines, you’re doomed to keep missing them.
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This article originally appeared in Hive — the world's first democratically built productivity platform. Learn more at Hive.com.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for staying on top of deadlines? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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