Deadlines are everywhere in modern life. Students have deadlines for essays and employees are assigned tasks and projects which need to be completed in a certain amount of time. Tax returns have to be done by a specific date, as do household bills and rent payments. We even unconsciously put deadlines on replying to text messages to avoid upsetting friends, relatives or partners.
That doesn’t mean deadlines aren’t daunting. For many of us, knowing there’s a time by which something categorically has to be finished causes stress — particularly if there’s a lot resting on it, or if missing the deadline has negative consequences.
Despite this, having a time limit for tasks is hugely beneficial. As people approach a deadline, they typically become more motivated and driven which leads to a better outcome. But why is this the case — and are there any setbacks?
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Psychology plays a significant part in our relationship with deadlines. According to what is known as Yerkes-Dodson law, our performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, albeit up to a point. Developed by psychologists Robert M Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908, the law states that the stress you experience from a deadline — the arousal level — will motivate you and improve performance.
Deadlines can also be a healthy way to manage a heavy workload and avoid stress, explains Lorna Evans, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
“A deadline helps us structure our time, so we can have a start, middle and end to a project that feels more in our control,” she explains. “Yes, we may still have a flurry of energy at the end to push through and finish the project, however, we can plan for this and build in self care throughout the project, so we maintain our creativity and capacity to think and reflect.”
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Without a deadline, it’s easy for our motivation to wane and for projects to sit still. “We often avoid them and won’t place any energy on them, which can build-up and leave us feeling overwhelmed,” Evans says.
“By setting deadlines, breaking projects down into smaller, manageable parts, planning our time, taking breaks and moving our bodies we are less likely to tip over into anxiety and maintain a positive mindset and creativity.”
Another interesting observation about deadlines is that having a longer time to complete something isn’t always helpful. A study published in 2019 in the Journal of Consumer Research found deadlines that are further away can lead to “lead to increased procrastination and higher likelihood of quitting.”
“Contrary to the common belief that having more time facilitates goal pursuit by allowing for more flexibility and fewer restrictions, the current work argues that long deadlines may produce unintended detrimental consequences on goal pursuit,” the researchers wrote.
Specifically, longer deadlines may suggest the “focal goal” is more difficult or lead people to “commit more resources” such as time or money.
However, there are some downsides to deadlines and the way they are used by employers. Research by the Harvard Business School notes that time pressures tend to reduce creative thinking, as rushing to get things done doesn’t give us the space to develop new, innovative ideas. In addition, we tend to ignore all other tasks — no matter how important they are — if we are too focused on a looming deadline.
Often, too, managers slap an arbitrary deadline on a piece of work despite the time-frame necessary to do a good job without added stress. When every single project is an “emergency” that needs completing as soon as possible, the deadline feels artificial — and we’re unlikely to devote our full attention and focus to it. Therefore, it can be helpful to either work with your manager to add a reasonable due-date to a task, or if possible, to set your own deadlines.
And while some stress can help boost our motivation, too much can cause engagement and productivity to stall and decrease. This is because extreme stress and anxiety triggers our “fight or flight” response, which negatively impacts our cognitive function and ability to think clearly.
“At times, we can feel very stuck, especially with multiple deadlines and it is useful to notice if we start to procrastinate, as this can have a negative affect on both mental and physical health,” says Evans. “It is often useful to ask yourself, ‘am I sabotaging myself or this project? Or, is this how I do my best work?’
“Take some time to reflect on your answers and think about who you could talk with about this feeling of being stuck, this may be a trusted boss, peer, friend or therapist.”