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Making Fake Deadlines Real: Completing Projects with Self-Assigned Deadlines

Making Fake Deadlines Real: Completing Projects with Self-Assigned Deadlines
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    As a freelance writer, nothing annoys me more than a client who tells me, “Oh, just get it to me whenever you can.” I hate it! I need deadlines in order to schedule and prioritize my work. I do what I can to get clients to nail down a deadline, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen. That’s when I have to go to Plan B: the ‘fake’ deadline.

    Fake is a bit of a misnomer — I should really refer to it as a self-assigned deadline. There is a reason that I call such deadlines fakes, though: there doesn’t really seem to be any sort of consequence for not completing the project on time, or even ever. I hear “whenever” from a client and I translate it to “never.” I’ve even worked it out logically. If a client doesn’t feel a project is important enough to have a deadline, it must not be important to her. I know I’m far more likely to procrastinate on a project that doesn’t feel important, and even if I get to it, I’ll dilly-dally on it. I won’t put out my full effort to getting it done and off my to-do list like I would for a time-sensitive project.

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    Following Through on Fake Deadlines

    My reasoning aside, though, I don’t get paid for projects that don’t get done. I have to make sure that I finish projects, even those without deadlines, so that I can move on to other work and other paychecks. I have to make those self-assigned deadlines feel real.

    Give the Client a Deadline: I’ve found that I can make a deadline real by getting a client’s approval for it. I may do nothing more than send out an email saying that I’ll have the project done by Friday — or any other specific date — but it’s enough to create an expectation in both the client and myself that I’ll be done by that deadline. Even a little bit of outside expectation can be enough to get me out of a procrastinating mindset. I’ve created such expectations with individuals other than my client, as well (there could be any number of reasons you wouldn’t want to pin down a specific date for your client). I find just telling a friend that I’ll be working on a given project today can get me moving. There’s still less of a consequence in not completing a task I told a friend about than a deadline I mentioned to a client.

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    Think About the Money: I’m afraid I’m quite the money-grubbing capitalist. One of my best motivators is thinking about where a particular paycheck is going to go. For instance, I may have an open-ended project that, if I just get it done before the end of the week, I should get the money in time to pay my rent. While money may not be the only reason that I work on a project, it is definitely an important aspect.

    Focus on the Client: I often do projects where I am the client — I’m the person assigning the deadlines, which can be a real problem for ensuring that the project gets done. Writing for my personal blog is a great example. It can be hard for me to convince myself to devote money to a project that isn’t going to immediately contribute to paying my bills and could be done at any time. I have to separate myself from the project and think of someone else as my client. For my blog, my readers might be my clients: they expect posts every so often and anything I can do to make my blog more reader-friendly is going to make my clients/readers happier.

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    Don’t Make It A Rainy Day Project: I think most of us have lists of things we’ll get to when we don’t have anything better to do — maybe on a rainy day. Sometimes projects with no due date in sight wind up on that list, pushed off until we have time for it. Well, I always have something better to do: I can get a head start on upcoming projects, bake cookies or read that book I’ve been dying to find time to read. I can’t allow projects that I actually intend to do to wind up on that list.

    Create Fake Rewards: I’ve found that rewarding myself for getting a job done is especially effective for short-term deadlines. For instance, I’ll tell myself that if I meet one of my ‘fake’ deadlines by the end of the day, I’ll make one of my favorite dinners. I try to scale the reward to the size of the project — I wouldn’t want to make my reward buying something more expensive than the payout for the project. But even something little can motivate me to just finish the project. I’ve heard of people making fake penalties for not following through on a particular assignment, but, personally, I’ve just never been able to follow through on that sort of punishment — it feels far more fake than my little rewards.

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    Do It Now: If I have a small project that I can easily get done in the time I have left today, I’ll do it. One of my biggest problems with self-assigned deadlines is that they will get pushed back in favor of more immediate due dates. So, if I find myself with time, I like to knock out work while I’m thinking about it. My only concern is letting clients think that I will always turn around a project that quickly.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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