Strategy & Business Development

What really happens when we push a deadline?

The reason why you don't take advantage of extra time and how to start doing it.

You know it all too well: The deadline is approaching, and you're working hard to finish your project. But suddenly, you get some extra time. Something forces the deadline to move, and all of a sudden you have two additional weeks for completing your tasks.

How hard do you work, now, to finish it? If you're like most people, you'll either slow down drastically or you stop entirely. Because you still have two weeks to finish the project. That's a long time – and after all, you were practically done anyway.

Research shows that after we sigh with relief, because the pressure is off, we really don't know how to spend extra time in a sensible manner. That's why we end up battling the same problems again: The same stress, the same time pressure and the same feeling of not being entirely ready. But now another week or even another month or year has passed.

The three reasons why we don't make good use of extra time

So why do we waste extra time this way, and what can we do about it? Psychology Today has an answer for us. We must, however, first understand why we do not take advantage of extra time.

According to Psychology Today there are three problems:

Problem number 1: We lose motivation
Your motivation for reaching a goal increases as the distance to the goal decreases. The more the distance to a goal is decreased, the greater the motivation for reaching it. This applies whether you are a laboratory rat chasing a piece of cheese, or if you are a salesperson closing in on your sales goal.

Psychologists call this almost unconscious behavior The Goal Looms Larger Effect, which implies that deadlines and goals that are nearby will subconsciously appear bigger and therefore be given larger significance or weight. So if you move a deadline, the goal will suddenly appear less important and it'll soon be clouded by other goals or deadlines that are more urgent. 

Problem number 2: We procrastinate
If you are among those who believe that they work better under pressure, then now is the time to pay attention. For you particularly, a postponed deadline causes bigger problems than for others. Without the immediate deadline you'll run the risk of completely stopping your work on a project.

As Heidi Grant Halvorson writes on Psychology Today:

“Psychologically, saying your work is better under pressure makes zero sense, because “pressure” is just another way of saying “just barely sufficient time to complete whatever I’m doing.” How can less time help you do a better job? This is like claiming that you are more rested when you give yourself fewer hours of sleep.

It’s really far more accurate to say that if you are a procrastinator, you work because there is pressure. Without pressure, you don’t work.”

 

To push deadlines and thereby eliminate the pressure can therefore be quite catastrophic for you, if think you work better at the last minute.

Problem number 3: We are bad at assessing how much time things take

Psychologists call this “planning fallacy” – a common tendency to underestimate how much time things take. The tendency is caused by a set of psychological reasons:

  1. We refrain from taking our own previous experiences into consideration. Even though we 've arranged a family party more than once, we forget each time that aunt Karen is always running late, and that we therefore have to wait half an hour before setting the food on the table

  2. When we plan something, we have the tendency to plan based on the most optimistic scenario. Even when we realize that it's very likely something will go wrong, when for instance a lot of people are involved or when a project has to go through many different phases.

  3. We don't consider how much time each part of a project takes. For instance, when you have to paint a room, you may imagine how rapidly you will work your way through the task. Which is quite fast. But you ofte forget that first you have to move all of the furniture, cover the electric sockets and paint the edges as well. (Read more about this here)

How to take advantage of a postponed deadline

Deadlines are, after all, postponed for a reason: So that you have time to finish the project. But if you don't have a deliberate strategy for how you want to stay clear of the three problems described above, then it's very likely that in two weeks, when the deadline knocks on your door, you'll have just as much difficulty making it, as you had two weeks ago.

So what can you do to take advantage of extra time? Here are two strategies to use.

Strategy number 1: Divide your big project into smaller objectives

By dividing your project into smaller parts you'll fight both problem 1 and problem 2. You maintain motivation and pressure, which ensures that even procrastinators get something done. Arrange your objectives strategically over time and make sure that they have actual meaning. If it doesn't matter whether you miss your deadline or not, it's not an important deadline.

Researchers suggest that many of us understand this implicitly. Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch show in one of their studies that only 27 % of students, who had to turn in three assignments during a semester, handed in all three assignments the last day. The vast majority of the students arranged earlier deadlines for one or several of the assignments. And half the students chose to divide the assignments equally throughout the semester. Those who did this handed in better assignments and received better grades.

Strategy number 2: Meticulous planning

In order to solve problem 3, which affects your ability to plan realistically, you have to be very deliberate when planning your project. You have to be particularly aware of the following:

  1. Consider how much time it took to complete a similar project.

  2. Try to identify where your project can go wrong (where it might not follow the plan).

  3. Divide the project into all the steps you have to complete in order to finish, and estimate how much time it takes to complete each step.

Without a good strategy and knowledge about your biases it is almost impossible not to fall into these traps. But if you implement the two solutions described above, then everything suggests that the next time a deadline is postponed, then you'll actually take advantage of your extra time the smart way.