The Self-Motivating Power of Deadlines

Ever have a day when you don’t have any deadlines?  If it only happens occasionally, you’ll feel blessed to have a day to catch up on a few things.  But there’s a hidden lesson here:  without client- or boss-driven deadlines, it’s often hard to get started.

Deadlines make procrastination less likely.  If you don’t deliver as expected, someone will eventually come around and ask about it.  So your first motivator is fear of losing face to those who were counting on you, or a more general fear of letting someone down.  Next, if you don’t do something, the someone who was expecting it might inform others.  So the second motivator is a fear of losing face among a larger group.  Now, not only have you shown your laziness or inability to one person, but several, opening you up to derision or scorn from a larger number of people.  After that, someone with some authority over you will notice – like a boss, higher level client.  So the third motivator is the fear of losing the regard of people who are particularly important to you in some way.

At the next level of deadline-missing repercussions, we have the possibility of some kind of retribution, like a confrontation, or a “performance improvement plan”.  So the fourth motivator is fear of large or small future actions that could harm you in some way.  From there, there is a cascade of fears.  Fear of losing your job, your home;  depending on the type of deadline you’ve missed, possibly even your health or your life (dental cleanings and payments on your vig being obvious examples J).  Add to this the possible fears of these actions affecting your spouse or business partners, children or employees.  Let’s take another look at this progression:

  • Missed a deadline
  • Fear of losing face to strangers
  • Fear of losing face to a larger group of strangers
  • Fear of losing face to someone important to you
  • Fear of retribution for missed deadline(s)
  • Fear of loss of job
  • Fear of loss of income
  • Fear of loss of health
  • Fear of loss of life

Deadlines trigger the first step in the chain.  They are the first hint that you are on a slippery slope.

But without deadlines… well, you miss the first three motivators.  The external, structural ones that help you stay on track to maintaining your life.  The rest of these motivating fears are vague, and don’t really happen with the crispness of the first three.  You may fear losing your job, but it doesn’t happen on a single day.  By the time it is noticeable, it’s on its way to a done deal.  Same with losing your home.  The individual elements that cause you to lose your home – missing payments on a mortgage, failing to maintain your property – are possible to postpone without suffering an immediate consequence.  Same for your health.  Same for your life.

Deadlines are the voice that calls us back from the edge, before we step onto the slippery slope.  They are one of the most important “canary in the mines” of our life.

So what about work with no deadlines?  The work that simply needs to be done “sometime”?  What if that work is personal, and no one will ever come looking for it?  Something like learning a language, or cleaning out your closet, or creating a smarter process for your own work.  These are the longer-term goals, the ones that make a real difference to your life/work/achievement.  No one will ever follow up to make sure you accomplished those tasks.  (Assuming you don’t have a teacher, parent, boss or spouse looking over your shoulder.)   Your motivation for deadline-free, long-term goals is fear, but possibility.  And possibility is not the stuff of instant gratification, like meeting a deadline is.

I believe there is a method which allows most people to easily increase their focus on long-term goals, which I’ll detail in another, upcoming post.  For now, I’ll remind you of some tried-and-true advice for how to self-motivate without deadlines:

  • Write down your goals. While there have been few studies that really looked at the success factor of written goals, most people agree that the act of writing your goals – and reviewing them regularly – helps in achieving them.
  • Take time to think about what the end game will look like for each of your goals.  Imagine it as specifically as you can.  For example, if you want to write a case study, imagine what it will look like, whether it will be printed or PDF, who you will share it with, how you will gather feedback.  The more specific your mental image, the more likely you are to stay on track.
  • Ask yourself, “What step can I take right now to make progress on this goal?”  We all know that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.  And every goal is just a series of small steps toward achievement.  If you want to be a great golfer, every ball you hit is another step toward mastery.  Let’s assume that there are 75 tiny steps on the path to your goal.  Tackle one per day and your goal will be complete less than three months from now.
  • Take that first small step before the end of the day.  You’ll feel better with some progress under your feet.  Use your innate human response to “sunk cost” and “loss aversion” to your advantage.  Like a gambler trying to win back losses, you will keep moving moving forward to avoid having wasted your time.  (This effect – for gamblers and procrastinators – gets stronger as you invest more.)

I’ll follow up soon with more on my theory and specific method for improving your focus on long-term goals.  It might be just the thing to start making remarkable progress on your own goals.

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