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Agreeing on Deadlines With Yourself Just Doesn’t Work: Here’s What Does

Agreeing on Deadlines With Yourself Just Doesn’t Work: Here’s What Does

A piece of advice that I have heard many times over is to set deadlines with yourself. In other words, when you are working on a task, you then agree on a deadline that you are trying to keep. This in turn should help you to finish the task in time.

Let me ask you this, however: How many times you have set these kinds of deadlines only to realize that you weren’t able to keep them? Or, how many times have you postponed or changed that very deadline till a later date since you realized you can’t get the task done because the deadline was unrealistic? I don’t know about you, but this has happened to me many times and I have come to the conclusion that negotiating and setting deadlines just with yourself is doomed to fail.

The problem is that it’s so easy change and postpone the deadlines rather than trying your hardest to get the work done within the defined boundaries. If this is the case, what is actually causing us to neglect those deadlines we set this way?

You are not feeling the pressure

The answer to this question is simple: you keep the deadlines to yourself and no one else knows about them.

The problem with this approach is that it’s easy to make changes to the original plan since you are the only person to know about it. Without any external feedback or pressure toward yourself, making those changes is very effortless. Unfortunately, this is just cheating yourself and that can lead to unnecessary procrastination, which in turn makes things more difficult for yourself and accomplishing a task becomes harder and harder.

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This is too bad, since the noble idea of a deadline is now turned upside down: Rather than setting the boundaries to your work and getting them done in a timely manner, the task keeps hanging on your task list unnecessarily.

So you think that others are criticizing you?

When I consider the situations when I have set the deadlines with myself (which I wasn’t then able to keep), I can think of at least three core reasons for doing so:

  • I didn’t want to feel external pressure
  • I wasn’t sure if I was able to finish the task in time
  • I felt that others could criticize me if I didn’t deliver the task within the set boundaries

First, announcing a deadline publicly makes you more exposed to external pressure. In other words, other people expect that you will fulfill the promise of getting something done before the deadline. If this pressure is just too much to handle, you try to avoid it.

Secondly, you may feel unconfident about your own capabilities of delivering a task within a timeframe. This is especially true if you really don’t know the task well or that you don’t have the necessary skills to perform it.

Thirdly, no one wants to be criticized or yelled at if the work isn’t delivered on time. Keeping the deadline to yourself is easier, since you are the only one who knows about it.

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Stretching your comfort zone

In order to get rid of the inefficiencies of internally-negotiated deadlines, you should just do the opposite: be open about them and announce the deadlines to the world. Only in that way can you expect better results, and it makes you try harder to deliver the tasks on time. Even though this may seem scary to some, you should do it anyway. That’s the only way of overcoming the continuous postponing and cheating on yourself with deadlines, which you are not going to meet.

Before you announce anything to the world, understand that you have less time than you think. When you realize this, it helps you to set more realistic deadlines, thus diminishing the fears that you have towards setting the public timeframes. Also, when you are realistic about your own skills and understand what the task is really all about, and then giving more accurate schedules becomes easier.

Deadlines the right way

1. Analyze your situation thoroughly. Before setting the deadlines, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the actual amount of time that I have?
  • How much work do I really have to do?
  • What is my skillset related to the task and the deadline?

Be very realistic with the answers, since this lays the foundation for good solid deadlines. If you have any doubts about your own skills, about the task, or the time available, it’s time to be more conservative on what you promise.

2. Less is more. Decide the goal you want to reach, but be aware of promising too much. As mentioned, you have less time on your hands than you think and time literally flies when you get down into your work.

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Taking a slightly more conservative approach is better than trying to promise too much. Getting less work done in this case is better than explaining later why you weren’t able to get everything done that you so boldly promised to do.

3. Take external factors into account.  Understand that there are factors which decrease the amount of time you have for the task and for meeting the deadline.

For instance, if you promised to do a task for your boss within five days, but you are travelling on Monday and you have meetings all Tuesday, all of a sudden you have only three days to do the task. Take these external causes into account when deciding on the public deadline for your work.

4. Be honest with yourself (and others). This point is absolutely crucial.

For instance, when I was at my day job and I was assigned a task which I wasn’t skilled to do, I let my boss or project manager know about it. This way, I wasn’t setting unrealistic expectations and everyone knew what the real situation was.

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5. Announce the deadline to the world.  Once you have all the background work done, it’s time to publicly announce your deadline. This makes you really try to meet the deadline and postponing it becomes harder and harder.

When you announce your schedule, make yourself accountable—for instance, towards to your blog’s visitors, e-mail list subscribers, your friends, your spouse, your colleagues and your boss, your mastermind group, or your coach.

6. Learn from failure. If you still happen to miss a deadline, analyze why it happened. Just calmly figure out the reasons that lead to missing it and use that experience the next time when you set another deadline.

Conclusion

There are times when keeping a deadline to yourself is justified, but if you have an important task that you want to get done, announcing the deadline to the world is a better option (especially if this task takes you closer to your big goals). For instance, I’m writing a productivity book right now and I have already announced to my e-mail subscribers (and anyone who I talk with), that this book is going to be published on October 22nd, 2013.

This way, I will make sure to really meet the deadline and get everything done before that date.

Over to you: How do you create effective deadlines?

More by this author

Timo Kiander

Productivity Author and Founder of Productive Superdad

What Is FOMO (And How to Get Over It) Do You Do This Common Mistake When You Start Working on Your Tasks? 9 Valuable Lessons Learned After Writing My First Book How to Create a To-Do List that Makes You Smile Agreeing on Deadlines With Yourself Just Doesn’t Work: Here’s What Does

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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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