The gist: Setting your own deadlines doesn’t work because it’s too easy to cheat. Smart deadlines—set by someone you trust—can make you more productive.
I can remember almost every paper I wrote in college. Why? Because each was paired with a sleepless night of researching, writing, hair-pulling and, ultimately, a sub-par paper written hastily but somehow good enough to get a decent grade.
Most classes put the onus on me to figure out how and when to write my exposé. I knew from the first day that the term would end with a big paper, and it was up to me to figure out how to apply my time appropriately to do it well. But I’m a classic procrastinator, and what that meant was pursuing other interests for 10 weeks, panicking for 5 days, and then panic-writing pages of semi-coherent babble with a few appropriate citations to make it look like I’d done my homework.
But some classes didn’t work like this. Sometimes, a professor would lay out the writing schedule and grade it along the way. Rather than figure out how to schedule my time it was scheduled for me, each milestone clearly defined.
The rigid schedule always lead to better papers. Despite my normal “I don’t like to follow the rules” attitude, I wrote better, well-researched and edited papers if there were a number of deadlines handed to me.
I find myself in the same positions today. Give me as much time as I want to do something, and I’ll usually wait till the last minute. Or tell me when you need certain pieces done by—and what the consequences for missing deadlines, and I’ll be right on schedule. With better results!
I’m not the only one who noticed this. A study done at MIT shows even top performing students struggle with deadlines. The research found surprising results not just about what motivates you to work faster, but to produce better results as well.
If you’ve ever struggled with procrastination, you’ll want to keep reading.
Smart Deadlines: Let Someone Else Set Them
In 2002, psychologists Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch teamed up to figure out how to get MIT students to stop procrastinating 1. Fascinated with all the research around the subject, they wanted to know if getting students to commit to incremental deadlines throughout their classes would make them better students.
So, they devised a plan to test it and ran two experiments.
In the first, they split students in the same class into three groups. The first was told they had to finish three papers by the end of the term, but it was left entirely up to them to figure out how and when to write them.
The second was given a specific schedule; they had to finish each paper by a certain date, spaced out over the course of the term.
The third group was given the same assignments, but told they could set their own deadlines for completing them.
How did each group do? You can probably guess.
The first group with complete freedom slacked off, got nothing done, and turned their papers in late. Just like me! They got the worst grades. And the third group who set their own deadlines did considerably better. They got better grades and, for the most part, turned their papers in on time.
Slam dunk. Give yourself some incremental deadlines, and you’ll perform better. But Group Two—who had their deadlines assigned to them—beat the pants off of both other test groups.
The researchers tested their MIT students again to make sure they were on the right track. In their second study, they “hired” willing students to proofread papers written by foreign students. Of course, the papers weren’t actually written by students—they were randomly generated with precise spelling and grammar errors to be caught and corrected.
The test was set up much the same as the first. Some students were given complete freedom of time to correct three papers. Others were asked to set their own deadlines to abide by. Others, still, were given a strict schedule to follow. This time, though, the students would be paid for their performance, and they’d be penalized for missing their deadlines.
The results were the same. Proofreaders who were handed their deadlines with no input made the most corrections and finished their tasks on time. They made the most money. Proofreaders who set their own deadlines, for whatever reason, still couldn’t stick to their plan. The ones with no incremental deadlines fell hopelessly behind.
The results are clear. No matter how smart you are, you’ll perform better and faster if you’re not the one in charge of setting your deadlines.
But that begs the question, “Who should be setting your deadlines?”
Smart Deadlines: Find The Right Partner To Set Yours
If you can’t be left to set your own deadlines and still perform to the top of your abilities, who can? If you’re not a student, you probably don’t have a teacher handing you an assignment schedule. And if you don’t work under a micro-managing boss, you probably have some freedom at work as well.
What are you to do? Two things:
- Offload the deadline decision process where you can.
- Create meaningful consequences for missed deadlines.
This could look different in a number of areas you may procrastinate:
- School. If you’re taking a class where you’re in charge of setting your own deadlines, set up a meeting with your professor. Tell them you’d like to work out a schedule of incremental milestones with them. If they balk and give you the, “I’m just trying to make you more responsible” line, show them the research! Tell them you don’t want special treatment or a way to get ahead, but that you need some sort of consequence for missing incremental deadlines because it will help you do better in the class.
- Work. You can deal with a boss in much the same way you can a professor. Express that you want to bring the best results possible to the business and that having milestones (with real bonuses / consequences) will help you do it. Show them you’ve done your research and that working this way will make your company stronger.
- Self-employment. If you work for yourself, there’s no one to tell you what to do or when to do it at all. This can be really hard! One answer could be to hire a business coach who can set deadlines for you. A friend of mine recently hired one to help him, and just having that accountability has helped him improve his business and more than pay the coach’s fee.
- Exercise. If you’re trying to get in shape for a vacation / wedding / party / etc. but find yourself struggling to stick to your resolutions, hire a personal trainer who can tell you exactly what you need to do and when you need to do it. For best results, hire someone hard-nosed who will drop you as a client if you don’t stick to the schedule.
For other personal goals, consider finding an accountability partner and letting them dictate the schedule.
Set A Smart Deadlines Right Now
To overcome procrastination, the science says you shouldn’t try to do it alone. Here’s something you can do now to get yourself headed the right direction. Answer these three questions for yourself right now:
- What is one specific area of your life where you struggle with procrastination (a college class, your work assignments, a personal project, etc.).
- Who can you recruit to set deadlines with you? It could be a teacher, a boss, a friend, a coach, or someone else.
- What valuable thing can you give up as a consequence? If you fail to meet your deadlines, what will you lose that will motivate you to stay on track? Try to make it something that isn’t easy for you to cheat on.
Good luck in your procrastination-smashing campaign. I’m rooting for you.
- Read the full research paper here.