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Pro Tip: Deadlines Don't Give You Productivity

When assigning projects to your team, the seemingly common-sense thing to do is assign a deadline to ensure completion on time. And for middle managers, half of their job is assigning deadlines to their employees, so that their own deadlines are met on time. But according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer research, hard deadlines could actually psychologically trick people into procrastinating.

Though seemingly counter-intuitive, thinking it through, this makes sense. When you’re given a project to do and a deadline to complete it by, most people will, at least subconsciously, assume that the time given is the approximate amount of time a project would take to complete.


Ask someone to finish something by the end of the day, they assume it’ll take some time within a day to finish. Ask someone to finish something by the end of the month, and they’ll assume it will take weeks to complete.


This isn’t always true, but regardless, the deadline leads to a sort of logical fallacy that starts with workers overthinking projects that they’ve been given a long time to complete and ends with them putting the assignment off. Kind of an odd scenario, right?


On the other hand, giving a very strict deadline with not a lot of time allowed to complete can lead to the opposite problem. People will assume the project can be done quickly and will do it quickly, making silly mistakes and with subpar output.


Working under pressure actually tricks us into thinking we’re putting out our best work (that shot of adrenaline associated with doing a lot of work very quickly), when really, working so quickly stunts creativity and attention to detail.


Clearly, there’s a Catch-22 when it comes to team leaders assigning projects. Obviously, every project needs to be completed at some point, so you can’t completely do away with deadlines. But, knowing this information, you might be able to adjust your thinking on them to get the best possible results.


Ask yourself this: when you assign a deadline, is it always necessary?


A lot of team leaders tend to assign deadlines just as a means of establishing order. If a project isn’t do-or-die important, or doesn’t have a mandatory “go live” point, perhaps instead of establishing a deadline, you can work with your team members to find out when they might be able to finish it.


Simply asking, “when do you think you can finish this by?” could lead to a project done in a more timely and careful fashion. You might be surprised how well things turn out when you give trusted team members a little autonomy over their time, especially those that have a particular area of expertise.


With larger projects that might have a firm completion date, you can work with team members to set short term, intermediate deadlines.


Instead of assigning the project as a whole and setting a deadline yourself, or asking them how long it might take to finish the entire thing, ask them how long it might take them to finish the first step.


Breaking a larger task into several smaller ones is proven to help productivity, and can create a sense of momentum as different items get checked off of the to-do list. And in the end, you’ll get the project completed by the overall deadline.


With that being said, be sure to consider individual employees as well. Everything we said has a tendency to work, but you might have the rare employee doing the type of work that might best be served with one hard overall deadline, or an employee that tends to produce well under pressure.


It’s your responsibility to feel out your staff and remember the human element in running a business.

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