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Deadlines course through the work world. We recognize the importance (and drudgery) of meetings and e-mail for organizing our work lives but rarely recognize the importance of deadlines. Nor do we necessarily handle them well.

Deadlines can be thought of as primarily individual or organizational. We create or are given deadlines for our work, in which the focus is primarily on our own challenge in meeting organizational objectives. But organizations also face deadlines collectively. There’s a deadline for Halloween costumes to be replaced by Christmas toys in stores, for the curtain to rise on tonight’s theatre performance, and for a caterer to have the wedding feast prepared.

Often, individually or collectively, we miss those deadlines. Some people seem allergic or oblivious to deadlines. Most people recognize their importance, but those folks divide into two starkly different groups. First are those inclined to start work early or at least work in sequential fashion toward that deadline, perhaps even finishing early so they can tweak the material one last time before passing it on. The others are procrastinators, or in the kinder term of life coach Grace Pacie, timebenders, who knowingly or unknowingly love the excitement of the last-minute rush. “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done,” bestselling author Rita Mae Brown has written. You are unlikely to change a timebender or a person who habitually misses deadlines. You have to live with them or give the work to others.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter much whether we hit the deadline or not – they are elastic. Getting the Christmas toys on the shelves a few days later isn’t a big deal. But other deadlines can be harsh: File your project proposal one minute after the RFP deadline – because you were perfecting it, or the computer was down – and you will likely be disqualified. So be alert to how elastic or harsh the deadline is, and manage differently for each situation.

Given a choice of a deadline, most of us would prefer it to be far off. But research suggests that’s wrong; sooner is better. In 2006, a test by U.S. census officials found people given a week less to respond to a questionnaire had a higher response rate and the quality of their answers was higher.

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Moving too fast is getting us into trouble

Deadlines beat no deadlines. In 2016, the non-profit Kiva, which lends money to low-income entrepreneurs, sent e-mail reminders to everyone who had started an application online but abandoned it. One group received a deadline for finishing the application while the others didn’t. The deadline motivated more people to respond.

“Deadlines can encourage productive behaviour. I’m sorry to report, however, that they have a dark side,” journalist Christopher Cox writes in a new book. “They can also draw time and energy towards themselves like a black hole. The problem is that as soon as you set a deadline, work tends to get delayed until right before time expires.”

He labels that The Deadline Effect, the title of his book. He argues that last-minute term papers are worse than those completed well before the deadline and fastidiously revised, and last-minute labour negotiations lead to worse deals than those completed without a deadline frenzy. A 2012 study in the U.S. found drugs approved by the Food and Drug administration after Congress set a deadline for approving a large backlog were almost seven times as likely to be withdrawn later for safety reasons than comparable drugs approved at other times.

Mr. Cox looked at seven organizations grappling with deadlines, including a restaurateur faced with unveiling two gourmet restaurants in the same week, the Telluride ski resort preparing for its Thanksgiving opening, and Best Buy gearing up for Black Friday. The lesson that hit home for him was deadlines, time management and productivity are not just abstractions for economists to study. They determine the material conditions of our lives.

He boils his advice down to seven words: “Set a deadline, the earlier the better.” In some cases, that will be interim deadlines before the actual big deal. Jean-Georges Vongerichten simulates a real dinner service as early and as often as possible for his new restaurants, first serving employees and later invited guests, perhaps initially with everyone getting the same meal but before the big day with diners able to choose anything from the menu as on deadline day. Telleride’s real opening – the crush of skiers – starts at Christmas but on Thanksgiving, the soft opening, if there isn’t sufficient real and artificial snow to populate the resort’s website with smiling, rosy-cheeked aficionados on the slopes, many people book their winter season elsewhere, as happened in the two years prior to Mr. Cox chronicling the 2018 effort. The Best Buy he worked at emphasized collaboration for meeting its overwhelming day, with individual employees’ sales figures not tracked as normal but sales credited to the entire team. “In my experience, increasing interdependence correlates to more effective enforcement of deadlines.” he writes.

Deadlines are more than an organizing mechanism. They are an opportunity to stand out, whether you’re an organization or an individual freelancer. My own advice is just three words: Beat your deadline. If you can do that it will shock people you are producing for, because it’s so rare and thus signals competence. In some case you can’t send that message – the RFP will only be opened at the deadline – but beating the deadline gives you ample time to finesse and improve.


  • You’ve heard about Devil’s Advocates and their value in decision-making. How about considering an Angel’s Advocate for your Zoom meetings? That person is entirely devoted to tacking on positives and additional possibilities to ideas. It helped inject creative spark back in one San Diego biotech team’s meetings, which lost steam when shifted from in person.
  • Consultant and former New York Times columnist Adam Bryant urges you to beware of the trap of making a smart choice among flawed options, as happens in what he calls “a logic box,” when you think you are making analytically solid choices among various options but the overall concept is misguided or flawed. Coca-Cola did that in its pursuit of sweetness through New Coke.
  • The leadership consultancy Bunch has a Pit Stop Day on the Friday of each month, when the entire team shuts down, people doing whatever they wish, work or non-work related. It’s to give a breather and is based on the idea that the team rarely rests unless everyone rests.

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