Why We Stopped Assigning Deadlines – and Started Getting More Done Because of It

If you’ve ever missed a deadline, you’re not alone.

Turns out, people miss their own deadlines a lot – there are even some fancy schmancy psychological reasons why it happens.

And while some people try to focus on incorporating lots of little schedule hacks that’ll help you trick yourself into meeting deadlines more consistently, we actually found one BIG one that’ll really do the trick:

We got rid of deadlines altogether – and you can, too.

No deadlines?

No deadlines.

And we know what you’re thinking:

That sounds like a really stupid idea.

It’s okay – your brain has been wired to think that way. From the time you got your very first homework assignment in school, you’ve been told time and time again that every task has a due date. It’s why some people insist that without deadlines, nothing would ever get done at all.

Student Working

You probably learned from an early age that deadlines are really, really important.

In a way, that’s true – but not nearly to the extent you’ve been made to believe. Because there are things that would probably never get done if they didn’t have deadlines – things like filing your taxes, or getting your car inspected, that you really just don’t feel like doing. You don’t want to do them, so you’re only allowed to put them off for a certain period of time.

But most things aren’t like that. Not in your business, anyway. And treating them like they are can lead to serious frustration.

Why arbitrary deadlines are dangerous

Because certain tasks throughout your life have built-in deadlines, it’s tempting to think that everything needs one. In a way, deadlines are comforting, because they give you a concrete goal. You know what you need to do, and when you need to have it done by.

In theory.

But the reality is, when you assign deadlines to everything you do, a lot of them are arbitrary. A certain task doesn’t need to be completed by a certain time – you just tell yourself that it does as a way of holding yourself accountable. Which might not be a problem, except for the fact that not all deadlines are arbitrary – and fake ones can get in the way of real ones. Separating the things that need to be done on deadline from the things that don’t gets confusing, and that’s where the problems really start.

Deadlines get moved around so much because not all of them actually matter. Click to Tweet
That means you’re constantly moving things around on your calendar, trying to find the perfect way to squeeze everything into place in a way that makes sense, when most of those things don’t actually need to be squeezed in at all. Which is easier to solve: a jigsaw puzzle with 10,000 pieces, or with 100?

Puzzle Pieces

When you only set deadlines for things that actually need them, you’re free to prioritize the rest of your projects as needed – and it’s a lot easier to keep them organized than you may think.

How to get things done without deadlines

This all leaves a big question:

If you don’t have deadlines, how does anything get done?

In our experience, this has been a two-part process.

First, do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done.

Parkinson’s Law says that your work will take up as much time as you give it – allow yourself a day to do a task, and it’ll take a day. Give yourself a week to do that same thing, and it’ll take a week. And while some would argue that the way around this is to just give yourself shorter deadlines, that can also mean scrambling to get things done on time instead of taking long enough to do them right. You can burn yourself out, and your work can suffer for it. (Just because you can do something in a day doesn’t mean you should.)

The alternative is to forego the deadline altogether, so that the project takes as much time as it needs, rather than as much time as you give it.

And yes – you’ll still be motivated to do work even if there’s no deadline. The pessimistic take on Parkinson’s Law is that if your work has an infinite deadline, you’ll never be motivated to do it.

This makes about as much sense as saying you’ll starve to death if you don’t schedule all of your meals. Your tasks will get done because they need to get done, not because you marked a due date on the calendar. If you’re worried about losing your motivation, look to part two of the process: work only on one project at a time.

Even if you feel confident in your ability to multitask, task-switching has a way of throwing off your productivity, slowing you down and making half-complete projects pile up before you ever finish just one.

At Edgar, we force ourselves to work on one project at a time, seeing it through until it’s finished before we’re allowed to do something else.

It’s organized using a Kanban flow, which looks a little something like this:

Kanban Flow

On the left is a column of upcoming projects. Someone chooses a project from that queue, moves it into the Doing column when they start, and when it’s ready for the next step, it continues moving to the right. (In this case, a developer’s project goes to the Code Review stage – more on that here.) Once the project makes it all the way to the column on the far right – the Complete column (not pictured) – the developer can go back to the start, choose another project, and go again.

Your to-do list of projects motivates you to not waste time. Sure, maybe you’re working on something right now that you hate doing. It’s boring, it’s frustrating, whatever. But you’re not allowed to work on anything else until it’s done – sort of a “no dessert until you eat your veggies” policy. It might sound kind of new age-y, but it turns finishing a project into its own reward, because it means you get to start work on the next thing. (It’s also great motivation for knocking out a ton of small, annoying tasks – you know, the kind that are normally really tempting to procrastinate on.)

You can still manage other people without deadlines, too

From a management standpoint, deadlines can seem like invaluable tools for keeping your team accountable. Like little mob enforcers who are always there to remind people that they have certain obligations to meet.

Mob Enforcer

“That’s a nice lookin’ job you’ve got there. Would be a real shame if something were to…happen to it.”

But is that really the tone you want for your business?

Constant deadlines can send the wrong message to your team. Instead of fostering a sense of autonomy, it turns them into thing-doers who are just there to tick off boxes on a checklist.

If you don’t trust the people on your team to do work simply because it needs to be done, you should rethink the people you’re hiring.

Businesses don’t grow by hiring thing-doers – they grow by bringing in people who can think of new ideas, and collaborate with you to make contributions bigger than just doing what they’re told. In his book “Ogilvy On Advertising,” industry pioneer David Ogilvy shares the advice that he gave every head of office in his agency:

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Eliminating deadlines isn’t the only way to empower your team, but it fosters a collaborative and trusting environment, and one without the rigid timelines that can discourage finding creative solutions.

Note: This isn’t the same thing as eliminating oversight altogether.

Getting rid of deadlines does not mean less management – it just means different management. You should work with people who want to do good work, sure, but you can still check in with them, monitor their progress, and step in to assist or get answers when you deem it necessary. If a task seems to be taking longer than you’d like, find out why! In the end, it’s about balancing trust with accountability – and the micromanagement inherent in constant deadlines on top of deadlines makes that harder than it has to be.

Here’s how to try it out with zero risk

Switching your entire method of project management is obviously a pretty big commitment – so here’s how you can give it a try.

For the next week, eliminate multitasking from your repertoire. Every time you work on something, don’t allow yourself to start your next project until the first one is finished. How does it affect your motivation? Your focus? The time it takes to complete a task? Try singletasking on for size – you may find that it’s a lot more effective than a deadline on a calendar. (And let us know in the comments if you like it as much as we do!)

 

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