The Surprising Reason To Set Extremely Short Deadlines

According to Parkinson's Law, if your deadline is too long, you will be anxious and your work will be boring. What's Parkinson's Law? Totally read this right now!

"I realized recently that one of the things I love about short deadlines," illustrator Christoph Niemann tells 99u, "is that people think straight."

How so? Imagine the world of Christoph Niemann. He works with major clients like the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. He's a badass illustrator of whimsy and precision: consider, for instance, the brilliance of his Let It Dough photo essay, now seasonally appropriate. The creative commonality: the best work comes from close-cropped, anxiety-inducing deadlines, Niemann says.

What he realized is this tension is a good thing, because the proximity of the deadlines reduce ambiguity and indecision between creator and editor. As he explains:

Especially with advertising projects—very rarely with editorial—when you have a month, it’s almost always going to end in disaster. Or if not disaster, then at least be extremely boring. It’s the same thing for me, if I were to go into the store and look at something for a month, I wouldn't be excited anymore—it would be impossible.

Niemann's experiences agree with the research of organizational psychologists. Work, they say, is "elastic," meaning that it stretches and shrinks to fit the time allotted. This has fascinating outcomes in meetings: Northwestern management professor and Creative Conspiracy author Leigh Thompson has told us about how people get the most value out of their meetings in the first portion. You'll be getting as equivalent quality of ideas in a 20-minute meeting as you would in a two-hour one.

But why does quality not expand with quantity of time spent/? There's a law for that.

Parkinson's Law: work expands to fill the time available for its completion. It originated in an impressively grumpy Economist column from 1955. Let us return to the mid-century to get the richer, more eloquent picture:

an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

As Joel Falconer writes at Lifehack, the outcoume of Parkinson's law is that if you give yourself a week to work on a two-hour task, then the task with grow in complexity as to fill that week—perhaps not with more work, but more anxiety about the work. It's like, as Niemann the illustrator would say, going into the store and looking at something you want to buy for two weeks: anxious, boring, and not at all productive.

The task for us, then, is to hem the time to the task—to treat our schedules like a tailor treats a suit.

Hat tip: 99u

[Image: Flickr user Second Judicial | David July]

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  • mediaman64

    A friend of mine calls this 'giving yourself a very short leash.' Planning is important, but I've worked with many people who are always getting ready to get ready.

  • DeeJay

    I think it was Henry Ford who said "make up you mind quickly and change it slowly". I like this, but I believe it is based on have sufficient tools, information, knowledge and experience. Once your ready to proceed then do so. The time you spend doing "right" it the second time wil end up making the task even longer to complete than previously thought. (assuming you get that opportunity)


    The saying is, "There is always time to do it over but never enough time to do it right the first time".
    Dr JEA

  • Aleks Blumentals

    Short times work great for gauging subconscious products which subsequently need interpreting and not be taken literally. They are primarily symbolic. Gestation, pregnancy with meaning and emergence of high value propositions takes normal pregnancy time...

  • Capricorn

    Agree with the general premise. Except that some tasks just needs to be given time for gestation. As Warren Buffett said: You can't get a baby out in one month by making 9 women pregnant at the same time.

  • Richard Rios-Stevens

    True enough. I think that the point being made is not one of setting unreasonably short deadlines, but more one of allotting an appropriate amount of time for a given task.
    On that note, I think it would be more appropriate to say that if you're taking longer than nine months to get a baby out, you're probably doing something wrong.

  • Todd Atkinson

    One of Parkinson's contemporaries, George Patton, summed it up with "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week". Rumor is that Parkinson began writing the Economist column in 1954...

  • Karin Nauth-Shelley

    Great article. I definitely agree that shorter deadlines are more efficient. We see this in the software development arena especially. Belatrix Software works with clients using Agile, an approach that produces releasable software in two week period/sprints. You then iterate, and refine from that starting point. The "tension" to create software at the end of a sprint focuses all of the team members' intellect, creativity and energy on that one outcome.

  • The long view

    Stupid premise. Good results usually take hard work. Sometimes that happens quickly as a result of good judgement/experience and luck, but mostly hard work. Don't encourage people to expect excellence in unreasonable time frames, they will more often be disappointed than not.

  • Marla

    I'd love to share this article with my company, but there is one little word keeping me from doing so. I've found that some writers are so relaxed with the language they use now that it's hard to justify sharing it on social media when I represent my company, so I just don't. Instead I just enjoy the article myself. Too bad, it was a good article otherwise...


    So, Marla, do some paraphrasing with citations and references.

    Dr JEA

  • SK

    is the word "Badass"? Really, you are not sharing this article because of that? What company do you own and do you really feel that your employees/clients would be offended by that? Wow.