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Reframing Deadlines as Finish Lines

What would happen if we started thinking of deadlines differently? You don't really want to *die* when you finish that project, do you?

I have always hated deadlines. Dead. Lines.

My anxious brain leaps immediately to the worst possible case — will I die if I don’t finish this project on time? No, but my career will be ruined, my life destroyed, my budding business will…die.

Enter the reframe.

I have a research project due to a client this week. I have started it and plan to finish it later tonight. Today is a sprint to the finish line, days before the drop-dead date.

In general, people speed up their behavior as they get closer to an end goal. Students study harder for exams the night before, runners lean into the finish line tape, and even lab rats pull harder as they get closer to reinforcement. In social psychology, this is called Goal Gradient Effect.

To leverage that effect, create self-imposed races to completion, either before an external deadline or for activities with no real finish line.

Finish Line Activities

I call any project that has a defined ending a “Finish Line” activity. Writing an article is a Finish Line activity; working with your team to release a product is a Finish Line activity; knitting a scarf is a Finish Line activity.

When there is an externally defined deadline, you know the expected timeline. You can choose to work strictly to that timeline and stay up the night before running on adrenaline and caffeine.

If you are more cautious, you might start your project earlier, but you are still likely to be making those last-minute photocopies or emailing the product off just before the deadline.

When you work to a deadline, sometimes you don’t stick the landing. If something unexpected comes up, you end up asking for an extension, making excuses, and generally messing with your reputation. Do it once, and it’s forgivable. Do it too often, and you seem like an irresponsible slacker. Once that label sticks, people who rely on your work won’t hire or promote you. Your reputation is capital that you don’t want to spend without careful thought.

You can safeguard your reputation and still leverage the Goal Gradient Effect. Set a Finish Line goal instead of a deadline. Think like a runner. A runner doesn’t say, “I have to finish this race before they shut down the organizing tents.” No, real runners aim to beat their own best time and finish the race as quickly as possible. They also keep a good pace and don’t try to sprint in the first mile of a marathon.

Apply that to the art of timelining a project. If it is a big project, treat it like a marathon. You don’t want to start sprinting immediately. I learned this lesson early on in my career, as clients and bosses have been known to change their minds about what they need or to flake out entirely. If you put a ton of effort into a big project the minute it’s assigned, you run the risk of wasting a lot of time.

On the other hand, you want to get started early and set a comfortable pace that fits your skills and experience. Is this your first marathon? How fast is your usual daily run? How far is that run? To pace a project, break it into manageable pieces, and use your experience to guide what you can do in a given amount of time.

Here’s the motivational hack: in thinking like a competitive runner, you push yourself to increase the pace (while maintaining or even improving quality) every time you do a project. Last year, you started writing your annual report on June 1 and turned it in on August 1, exactly on deadline. That’s the equivalent of your first 5K after you got up off the couch. This year, you started on June 1 again, but now that you have the template in place for the report, you think you can finish it in a month. Make July 1 your Finish Line goal. When you cross that finish line, do something celebratory like take a guilt-free vacation day.

What’s the point, you ask? Why would you want to finish your Annual Report a month early? For me, it’s because the Annual Report is drudgery, and it’s a whole lot more fun racing with myself to make sure it’s done. I’m also competing with my colleagues in other departments to make mine the best report showing the most actionable data. (Not a whole lot catches an administrator’s attention in a Library Annual Report. Geeking out on data can catch their eyes — or make them roll up into their heads.)

A plan to finish early is also a buffer against adversity and unexpected workload. It is like getting up a little earlier every morning. When all goes according to plan, you can relax with a cup of coffee and start your day with calm. When it goes less perfectly (as it usually does), you start the day with the cat hacking up a hairball on your bed, the shower drain backing up, and your keys hidden in whatever abyss they crawl off to while you are sleeping. And you still make it to work on time.

A case in point is what has happened to many of us in 2020. Within the space of days, we went from working in an office to working at home. From picking up the kids at daycare to sharing the home office/classroom with them every day. From eating out five times a week to baking our own bread. It has been — and continues to be — crazy and exhausting for everyone. In those first weeks, having a completed project ready to turn in meant I had a little bit of downtime to breathe between Zoom meetings. I could actually enjoy being at home.

Turning Maintenance Activities into Finish Line Sprints

Much of my career was spent working on what I call “maintenance activities.” Those are the kinds of tasks that have no deadline but just have to be done, over and over again. Think lawn mowing, checking website links, or doing dishes. Other activities end only at clock-out time, like assembly line work.

The motivational issue with maintenance activities is that they never end. Because there is no deadline, the Goal Gradient Effect never kicks in, and the task feels like slow drudgery.

For some people, working on a maintenance task is all about avoiding failure. Fails fall on a continuum and vary between individuals. For me, a lawn mowing fail is when the homeowner’s association calls me out; for my fastidious neighbor, a fail is when the grass is over 2.5 inches tall. (I think he uses a ruler)

Motivation can come from turning a maintenance activity into a Finish Line activity. At home, one of my favorite tools is a timer. Can I finish cleaning the kitchen in 15 minutes? It’s a sprint to get that last dish in the dishwasher before the for timer goes off.

Breaking an ongoing task into measurable units helps make it seem more doable; setting goals for completion turns it into a finish line activity. Quantifying the task helps. Most library catalogers I know keep track of their progress by cartloads of books. Even though they may have shelves full of books waiting for them, they mark the completion of a cart as a milestone, and they expect to complete that cart within a specified period of time.

Quantifying the Task

Any big task can be broken down into manageable units that become sprints. If you can find a way to quantify the task (one cart of books, one load of dishes, 2 loads of laundry) and set a time limit on it, you’ve set up a SMART goal. The time limit kicks in the Goal Gradient Effect. And I always add some sort of treat for myself when I cross a finish line to kick the motivation up a bit higher.

When I was an undergraduate English major, I would take the novel-a-week assigned in each literature class and look at the total number of pages in the assignment. I knew I could read (and comprehend) about 60 pages an hour. Then I would set my deadline for finishing the first 60 pages, take a break, and move on to the next 60 pages. At the end of the novel, even with 3 more waiting to be completed that week, I would hang out with friends for a while because I had crossed one finish line. The next race hadn’t started yet.

Summing up

Motivation is the most difficult part of time management for many of us. I can sit in my chair and make a perfect plan for my day but still do absolutely nothing. Procrastination is an easy default.

Nonetheless, long-term goals often require completing boring tasks. And dishes have to be washed, no matter how much you hate doing it.

Playing a few mind games with yourself can increase motivation and help you finish more “have to” tasks in less time. Turn these tasks into mini-races to a finish line with a prize when you get there. That will leverage the Goal Gradient Effect and increase the time you have for fun. That’s productivity, Messy Desk style.

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