Move your deadlines up

There’s an interesting piece on Contently about coping with deadlines and this is my favourite one:

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. It’s not just a funny observation; it’s called Parkinson’s Law. If you’ve felt unproductive or if you want to increase your output, move your deadlines up. That’s right, giving yourself less time could actually make you more productive.

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, deadlines set near the present encouraged people to get started on their work, while deadlines set further in the future (e.g., early next month, early next year) encouraged procrastination.

Instead of setting your deadline for next Monday, try moving it up to this Friday. You may find yourself more compelled to work throughout the week. If you’re used to catching up with work on weekends to meet a Monday deadline, moving your deadlines up to Friday could mean finally getting to relax on Sunday.

And you don’t necessarily need to tell your editor about the accelerated deadline for it to be effective. It might sound counterintuitive, but shorter deadlines could also clear your head and help you think straight.

5 Ways to Use Deadlines to Your Advantage – Herbert Lui, Contently (25 February 2015)

Read the full piece for four more ideas.

Dramatic timing

Pretend you’re presenting Strictly Come Dancing or The X Factor or any of those: spread things out for maximum dramatic effect – and it’ll help you get it done.

This one needs an example. I’ve just taken over running a programme of about 24 writers who are being paired up into buddies. It got complicated: the number varied, everyone must pair with everyone else but only once, some dropped out, some joined, all that. But in the end, last Sunday, I had the list of who was to work with whom.

And as I was about to post it on the group’s secret Facebook group, I stopped. Instead of the whole list, I just put the first pair up. And announced that I would reveal the rest throughout the day. I was called a tease.

Every thirty minutes for the rest of the day I revealed one pair. It was a daft and a fun idea but you can’t believe how it helped me. I became very conscious that I had to write a new, funny announcement every 28 minutes or so. So I’d post the new one and immediately get on with other work I had to do, shovelled through as much of that as I could before my alarm went off and I did another announcement.

I got a huge amount of work done that day and it felt like a game. If there is anything of yours that you can spread out like this, give it a try, okay? It focuses you like nobody’s business.

Now, there is actually a strong chance that not one single one of those writers noticed this because they could’ve just come on at the end of the day and seen the whole list. So next time I’m going to spread it out over days. I don’t think that will help my productivity, I think it’ll be more fun.

Don’t stop til you get enough

Also, be stupid.

More specifically, be stupid about what you can do, what you will get done, about what is enough.

Today I had occasion to be in Droitwich for most of the whole day and for most of most of the whole day I was on my own writing in various corners. A library. A tea shop. I liked both of those.

But I was there because I was doing this thing that meant meeting a guy at the start and at the end. I told him in the morning that in between I was going to write 10,000 words of the book I’m doing. I said it as a way to say I was fine hanging about, he should forget me. But in my heart I also said it as an absolute truth. I would write 10,000 words today.

I didn’t.

I wrote 8,500 words instead.

Doubtlessly, just doubtlessly, I will have to revise a lot of those and may yet throw them all out as I so often do and have done. But the fact that I was even a little bit cut off from everyone and the fact that for some reason I had my eye on the word count, I flew to 8,500.

The number doesn’t matter and the fact that I’ll willingly throw it all out again tomorrow doesn’t matter. What does is that there are points in today’s work where I kept on writing just to see where I went. And there are points where I went to interesting and new places.

Sometimes I need to just write quickly to get something down that I can change. I know that. I didn’t appreciate that sometimes the very same technique makes me reach into newer areas.

Part of me wants to share that with you for the next time you’re stuck for a word or a sentence or a thought. But part of me just wants to remember it myself.

Seriously, no deadlines. Unless..

Yesterday's post on not setting deadlines for your tasks got me a lot of reaction from people saying they have to set deadlines or they don't get things done. And I do agree that even a fake deadline can be a motivator.

What I'm saying, though, is that most tasks do not need this so don't do it. Don't give deadlines unless they are real or you really need it.

So for example, straight from my own To Do list this right now:

Change Evernote and Dropbox passwords

I need to do it, I want to do it. In fact, I want to do it quite regularly. But it doesn't have to be done today, it doesn't have to be done tomorrow. It's in my To Do list and I will see it every time I choose to review my entire list. I'll see it when OmniFocus says it's time for me to review my project called “Mac &c”.

But I won't see it today. I didn't see it today. I just had to go looking for it now, trying to find a good example of all this. (Confession: it was difficult. It seems most everything I'm doing is urgent.)

Or this:

Book Four Oaks train for Wednesday morning

That obviously has a deadline, doesn't it? If I didn't see that task on my list until Thursday, I'd be sunk. So in theory I would have a deadline of Tuesday and maybe a start date of last Friday when I was asked about going to this school.

I say in theory because I don't know. I just found that task in my list now but I've already done it, I've already booked that train seat, so I just ticked the task as completed and it's gone. Vanished before I could remember to check what the dates were for you.

This is how most of my To Do list work goes now: I check the list, see I've done a lot of the things already, I tick them all off. I used to find something on the list, do it, come back to tick it, pick the next thing, go away, and so on. Rinse, repeat. Now I see what I've got to do today and I just go do it. My life runs by this To Do list yet I hardly look at it. That's one thing I adore: I don't have to be a slave to checking this stuff yet it just still gets done.

And one thing that used to make me come back to check the list every few minutes was how often I would set deadlines. Fake deadlines. Really just the same as writing it all out on a piece of paper and pretending you can get the lot done tomorrow.

Here's a third type of task from my list now:

Write 20,000 words of novel MW by end of May

There's a deadline right there. It's fake. Nobody is waiting for it – well, nicely, they are but not specifically at the end of May. But I am doing a writing buddy thing for April and May with someone who's particularly good at fiction so I want to have a substantial chunk to show her by the end. (I'm on about 13,000 words, thanks for asking.)

If I miss that end of May deadline, it doesn't matter. It's more than just letting myself down since I have told this buddy that I'm doing it. She may not be waiting for it, she may be dreading getting it, but I've told her it's happening so I feel held to account.

That's good. That's planting a stick in the ground and working towards it.

I have no problem setting deadline dates for this fakery.

I just want you to stop doing it for “Buy beans at supermarket” too.

Don’t give yourself a deadline

You’ve got this thing to do, it’s important, you want to do it, you need to do it, of course you’re going to put it on your To Do list and of course you’re going to put a deadline.


Does it actually, really, seriously, honestly, have to be done by a certain date? If you’re delivering something to a client, yes. But that is about the only time you need a deadline. If you work at a place where, say, the holiday rota comes out on a particular day and you’ve got this many seconds to get your request in, fine.

Everything else you do, avoid setting a deadline.

Don’t have a start date, don’t have a deadline date, just have the task.

Because you are going to get it done. It is on your list. You’ll write the task as if someone else is going to do it, fine. It’ll help you to say that it’s a task to do with this project or that: I have tasks for an event I’m producing, for instance. I’ll say the task belongs in that event project. If you’re using OmniFocus, you have to set a certain amount of detail in order to get the task out of your general-purpose, catch-all task inbox. (See part 2 of What’s So Great About OmniFocus.)

That task will then stay out of your way until you go looking for it. Part of using a good, trusted To Do system is that you don’t have to constantly see all your tasks because you elect to review the lot at certain times. It’s a core concept of David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

So it’s there, you don’t have to keep thinking about it, you will get it done.

If you added some artificial deadline, the task would pop up in your face on that date. But it’s an artificial deadline. A contrived one. Odds to onions, you’d see that notification and you would dismiss it. Why wouldn’t you? It isn’t a real deadline, you don’t actually have to do that now, swat it away.

Deadline notifications just became meaningless.

If you’re having to consciously stop and work out whether this deadline is the real deadline, you’re screwed.

I will spend time on my To Do tasks when I’m writing them in. Actually, no, I’ll often chuck half a thought in and then work it up into a proper task when I get home. But once that’s done, once it’s in the list, I don’t want to have to think about it until either I’m ready to do the task or it is time that I have to. Don’t make yourself have to work your list, deciding every day what’s real and what isn’t. Spend that time doing your To Dos.