The Case For And Against Stressful Deadlines

Deadlines, when managed well, can be a motivation—but when abused, can set you back.

I have a thing for deadlines. I don’t like to miss them.

I once turned in a book manuscript 11 days after giving birth, which may sound extreme, but really isn’t. I had nine months of warning on both the baby and the book, so I planned ahead, finishing the manuscript a month ahead of time, and then using those last weeks to polish.

So I was fascinated to read a recent Wall Street Journal article claiming that deadlines might not be good. Writer Andrew Blackman interviewed Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who studies organizational behavior and cognitive science.

He said that “The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem ... The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can’t even see the box.”

So are deadlines bad? In reality, if you want to manage well, the story is more complicated. Here’s what you need to know:

Extreme time pressure makes us delusional

Great ideas don’t necessarily come to us on a schedule, so asking a team to come up with the most amazing marketing campaign ever in the next two hours won’t work. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has had hundreds of people keep thousands of diary entries about their work over the years, and analyzed them for mood, work quality, etc.

As she said in an HBR interview years ago, “while our participants were giving evidence of less creative thinking on time-pressured days, they reported feeling more creative on those days.” You think you’re cranking out your best work, but you’re probably not. Or as Boyatzis told me, “You show me somebody who says, ‘I’m an adrenaline junkie, I perform my best under stress,’ and I’ll show you an idiot.”

But some pressure helps us focus.

When you have no time pressure, your brain is constantly looking around for new things, and that can be good for creativity. But some of the things you’ll be looking around and noticing are completely irrelevant.

A deadline “allows you to clear away other stuff,” says Boyatzis. “Psychologically, you make a deal with yourself that you’re not going to worry that the washing machine may need replacing.” You focus on just this one problem. “That’s where it helps.”



Creativity is not the only thing that matters.

It’s a big leap to go from “deadlines hinder creativity” to “ergo we shouldn’t have deadlines” because many times, done is better than perfect. If you’re a sports reporter filing a story on today’s baseball game, your readers care most about who won and how that team won, and they want to know that information quickly.

An insightful profile of the relief pitcher that takes an approach no one has ever taken before is great—and that’s an article to take your time on. But not every deliverable requires creative genius.

Self-imposed deadlines work wonders.

By setting a personal deadline for my book manuscript (that is, a few weeks before I was likely to go into labor) I got the best of both worlds. I was focused enough to get it done, but I wasn’t under extreme external time pressure, so I could stay open to new ideas. “My sense is that if it’s your own internally driven [deadline], it’s more engaging and it’s less stressful because you’re setting it,” Boyatzis says.

Mini-deadlines beat big deadlines.

If you’ve got a big project, backing up and setting intermediate deadlines can create a motivating sense of progress. Michelle Rafter has done a variety of editing jobs, including a recent gig corralling a team of freelancers to write company profiles that had to be published in conjunction with some well-known annual lists. In other words, no wiggle room.

Instead of asking for everything at once, she had writers commit to a certain number of profiles per week. She “kept detailed spreadsheets showing who was responsible for what, and whether they hit those goals,” she says. Mini-deadlines allow for wiggle room even if the overall project has none. If one contributor was late, another might be early, which kept Rafter’s workload at a relatively constant level, lessening any negative effect of a less minute time crunch on her creativity.

Some people are just more deadline-oriented than others.

Smart managers know that different people respond to different incentives. Rafter finds that “If writers have worked in daily news, websites that break news, or wire services, they’re very deadline oriented. Writers with that type of background don’t need a lot of motivation to hit deadlines, they know what to do.”

Others need more hand-holding and frequent check-ins. They’re not bad people, they’re just different people. Good management means getting to know the people you’re working with, and using deadlines as one tool in your kit for getting good work out of them in a timely fashion.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Lowe]

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2 Comments

  • I appreciate this insight very much. This is the norm in the agency who recently employed me and it was very difficult to exercise leadership and do quality work.