Deadlines are a fundamental feature of every business operation – you can’t plan, promise or forecast profit without placing time boundaries on the value you produce. But while the productive benefits of deadlines are long established, cranking up deadline expectations doesn’t always produce better results.
Used thoughtfully, tight deadlines can help motivate and inspire teams; used poorly, they can completely destroy them. Here’s what you need to know about tight deadlines – and how to set intelligent deadlines that always get the best from you and your team.
When tight deadlines work
Tight deadlines are a direct response to the logic of Parkinson’s Law, which argues that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion". By limiting the time available to complete a task, we are controlling that expansion. And the result, in theory, is increased productivity – as our deadline approaches, we start to make choices and trade-offs, scaling our efforts to meet it.
The restriction of deadlines plays directly to our psychology, since the benefits of achieving success far outweigh the pitfalls of facing failure. They can help boost motivation during quieter periods, helping us to produce high-value work when work engagement is typically at its lowest.
In small doses, sometimes it’s more productive to err on the side of too little time: a little pressure at work can help you cut procrastination and help you focus. As illustrated with Parkinson’s Law, you find a way to get it done – sometimes by cutting down on slack time in your work.
People bond when they have a common deadline or goal – you’re all working to achieve the same end, and that sense of unanimity can fuel great spur-of-the-moment ideas.
A shorter deadline can be a real boost if you and your team have overachieved in a short amount of time. It’s good to test your limits and be proud of how much you can actually achieve under pressure, and aspirational targets can tap into the positive elements of competitive drive.
When tight deadlines are destructive
While tight deadlines have their benefits, they should not form the backbone of your work strategy – they work best when given intermittently or occasionally. Similarly, they can push aspirational productivity at the expense of the measured and precise calculation required to honor client agreements.
Creating unhealthy stress
Working to just tight deadlines can cause immense stress, and when that pressure is frequent or protracted, it can become overwhelming. Pushing every new task as “urgent” also disrupts busy schedules and exerts unrealistic pressure on individuals. It makes our work vague and confusing: priorities become unclear as we constantly shift our attention to new tasks, making it difficult to know what actually matters. Over time, this constant sense of urgency leads to exhaustion and disillusionment.
Eroding client confidence
Precise forecasting is essential for setting sound project estimates and delivering work against them. Honoring client agreements is the most basic ingredient to running an accountable and reliable business, but setting unrealistically tight deadlines can completely undermine that. While making an exciting promise may help win contracts, you need to compete within your means – failing to deliver against what you advertize is completely self-destructive.
Creativity is notoriously unpredictable – there is no neat measurement for the time it will take to solve a creative problem. Whenever you set time limits on creativity, you may indirectly be placing limits on quality, making people rush to produce something and offer designs or ideas that are haphazard and underdeveloped. It makes people us less inclined to explore new ideas that take time to flesh out – meaning businesses risk missing out on innovation, imagination and creative thinking.
Short, demanding deadlines leave little room for managing unforeseen problems. When those problems do arise, they can unfairly burden your team. When missed commitments build up, it can completely deflate morale – making employees question management as well as their own capabilities.
How to set better deadlines
Used well, deadlines can be an extremely useful productive tool. But they should never be shot-in-the-dark assumptions, made outside the context of your current productive performance. Nor should they be made disconnected from each other.
Thankfully, setting intelligent deadlines just requires you to follow four basic steps:
1. Track your activity over a set period
This will show you how long different tasks and project phases tend to take.
2. Calculate average task completion rates
This effectively produces the most consistent deadline for a particular type of work.
3. Use your averages to create a schedule
If seeking to improve personal deadlines, try time blocking your week; if improving team deadlines, plan and assign tasks to employees using a team planner.
4. Analyze performance against your plan
Once your planned work has been completed, you can compare how long asks actually took relative to your deadline, helping you can adjust and improve future ones.
Remember, never blanket apply deadlines – tailor them to the unique time requirements of different types of work. Only then can you help your team coordinate resources and respond flexibly to challenges – ensuring they deliver quality work on time, every time.