Artificial Deadlines & Expanding Time

image credit: Arjen van den Broek
"I should really get that done." So says the guy with a project that needs to be wrapped up but can't seem to see it through.

Why doesn't he just do it?

It's likely that no one (including him) has established a deadline, a date on which the project must be completed. Or else, the stated deadline is far enough out that he can delay doing the hard work of finishing (finishing is alternatively called "shipping" by Seth Godin). Make no mistake about it: if the deadline was near he would get it done, because good workers respond to deadlines.

One contemporary challenge to deadlines is the way we work: the trend is toward knowledge-based projects instead of widget-based projects. Consulting companies pop up everywhere, but the local plants close their doors. In a widget world, you turn the crank and another widget is produced. You knew how productive you were simply by dividing hours worked by widgets produced.

But in a knowledge world the calculation isn't nearly so straight forward. There is always another book to read, specialist to consult, or website to visit. Beyond that, fresh ideas don't always spring up during the time you've designated as "work." They flash in your mind on their own time (and it's usually when you least expect them). You can spend an hour of dedicated time thinking about a solution to a knowledge-based project and wind up with nothing to show for it. But then you get in the shower the next morning and 5 minutes later you've figured the whole thing out! Which segment counted as work time: the hour or the shower? Both. And that's why we're hearing more and more people say that "the job is never done."

What I have found is that deadlines yield solutions.

Why is that? Blame it on the Law of Expanding Time (aka Parkinson's Law):
"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."


In other words, if you allow yourself 2 full weeks to get something done, then it will take you two full weeks to get it done. The same thing is true for 2 days or 2 months. That's why students are up until midnight or later the night before their term papers are due: we work up to the deadline and then hand it over.

In environments without whistles to signal the end of the day, we must find ways and rhythms to create our own whistles. The benefit is this: If I am down to the wire and an answer is due, I inevitably arrive at an answer. If I had another day or another week, then I would have taken the full time to mull it over even more, but the time is up and the results are due. Surprisingly, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Blink, the decision made in the compressed period of time is usually just as good, if not better than, any solutions that came after more time was allowed.

Too often our meetings conclude with, "Let's talk about this more next time," or "It would be great if someday we actually did that." If there was a deadline between now and "next time," or a date assigned to "someday," then a decision would have to made right now. That's the beauty of setting and enforcing artificial deadlines. It prompts action, responsibility, and accountability.

An artificial deadline is a due date that you impose on a project that is not dictated by anyone above you in a position of authority. It's a tool to get things done. If you neglect an actual due date and, instead, insist upon the idea that it'll get done when it gets done, then Alan Jackson's song lyric will be on repeat play in our places of work: "Sometimes someday never comes."

What I suggest is that you consider the projects that are looming on the horizon. You've made little dents in some of them, but you haven't finished them. Because you know you'll have to finish them eventually, they are eating away at your mind's capacity for other things - like rest and creativity. Set some artificial deadlines for yourself and work those projects through to completion. Stop letting time expand and unfinished projects linger. Or, as Larry the Cable Guy would say, "Git 'er done."


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Book Review: Do the Work by Steven Pressfield
Word Association: Leadership

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