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!

The Surprising Reason To Set Extremely Short Deadlines
[Image: Flickr user Second Judicial | David July]

“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

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.