The Pros and Cons of Deadlines
Deadlines can both motivate and stand in the way of completing goals.
Posted June 27, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Distant deadlines can cause procrastination and poor planning, whereas proximal deadlines inspire action.
- Complex goals are more likely to be completed when chunked into simpler tasks, each with its own short-term deadline.
- Students generally don't like being assigned sub-deadlines, so use defaults or ranges to give them some autonomy in deadline selection.
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
Deep down inside, all of us know that, without deadlines, not a lot would get done in this world. It comes as no surprise that we attach deadlines to unpleasant experiences, like paying bills or doing taxes, but even actions with huge benefits can "whoosh by" without a deadline. In one experiment, adding a deadline to an interest-free loan for small business owners increased applications by 24 percent and loan receipt by more than 12 percent. Adding a second, “early bird” deadline increased applications by another 26 percent. Deadlines like these motivate action by eliciting a sense of time scarcity, which narrows our focus to the task at hand, stifling procrastination (sometimes) and triggering our fear of missing out.
So, it’s with good reason that we inundate students with deadlines, from early admission to the last day to apply to graduate. Along the way, there are deadlines for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), essays, scholarships, projects, internships, competitions, and more. But rarely do we consider how deadlines impact behavior, or how to optimize deadlines to help students achieve their goals. Luckily, behavioral science has much to say about the pros and cons of deadlines.
The Cure for, or Cause of, Procrastination?
Deadlines are often leveraged to inspire action and prevent procrastination. But this only works when deadlines are pressing. In one study, people given a gift certificate to a French café were more than twice as likely to use it when it expired in three weeks versus two months. Logically, more people should use the two-month certificate because they have more opportunities to do so, and any setback, like getting sick or going on vacation, shouldn’t stop them for the whole redemption period. But, when deadlines are too far into the future, procrastination seeps in and we often fail to act despite having more time to do so.
Distant deadlines can also change our behavior. Perhaps people with the two-month certificate stuck it in a drawer instead of on the fridge, making it less salient. Or they devised a far-off implementation intention (“I’ll use this next month when mom visits”) that fell through. Deadlines, in fact, are one reason why we regularly underestimate how long it will take to do things, known as the planning fallacy. Instead of planning how we’ll complete tasks starting from today, we work backward from the deadline, ignoring potential barriers and ultimately shorting ourselves on time.
Chunking and Deadlines
Unfortunately for our students, most deadlines are far away until they’re not. The final paper due in December feels distant in September. Applying to college isn’t that demanding until winter rolls around. The window for completing the FAFSA is nine months long! Our brains are simply not wired for this kind of future thinking, so we need to chunk these tasks into smaller pieces to create some urgency.
Chunking is the dissection of complex tasks into simpler ones and planning for each subtask. For example, registering for classes involves several steps, such as scheduling an advisor appointment, reading the course catalog, completing a credit audit, and more. Identifying each step provides a better sense of how long the whole process will take and allows you to set sub-deadlines instead of relying on a single, ultimate deadline. In fact, high-school seniors who used an app that chunked the FAFSA and set a deadline for each step were 22 percent more likely to complete the FAFSA and 80 percent more likely to receive federal aid.
Thus far, the advice I’ve offered seems pretty straightforward: Break down complex tasks into manageable chunks and assign a deadline to each in order to harness the motivating quality of deadlines. However, assigning sub-deadlines requires a bit more finesse to maximize students’ performance. In one study, college students were paid to find 300 grammatical and spelling errors within three, 10-page texts. Students required to submit one text per week for three weeks spent 65 percent more time on task and earned about four times more rewards, than students told to complete all of their work within three weeks. Students given weekly sub-deadlines, however, enjoyed the work significantly less than those given just the ultimate deadline. This difference may not matter much for meaningless proofreading, but if you’re trying to inspire students to fall in love with a subject, assigning sub-deadlines may be counterproductive.
An alternative is to encourage students to set their own sub-deadlines. Unfortunately, students tend not to optimize their time. In the previous study, students who created their own sub-deadlines earned about 60 percent as much as those who submitted weekly, and their enjoyment of the task fell between the other two groups.
Another study remedied these issues using what I call the “inception” method. College students were asked to build a crane using Lego. One group was given just the ultimate deadline (15 minutes), one group had to complete a section every five minutes, and the last group could create their own sub-deadlines, but each student accepted the default of every five minutes. The students who “chose” to finish a section every five minutes completed the third part more than 20 percent faster than the other two groups and, when given the opportunity to free play, spent more than twice as long building with Lego on their own as those students who had the five-minute sub-deadlines imposed upon them.
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Making Deadlines Work for Your Students
From the time we enter school, deadlines are a constant in our lives, and perhaps no time more so than leading up to and during college. When determining deadlines for everything from classroom assignments to college scholarships, consider what behavioral science tells us about optimizing their utility.
- Remember that deadlines are just as important for activities that students enjoy and from which they will benefit as they are for activities that students find unpleasant and want to avoid. Leverage deadlines to help students thrive.
- Chunk complex processes into smaller steps and create sub-deadlines for each chunk. More proximal deadlines will inspire action and prevent procrastination.
- When possible, allow students to set their own deadlines, but with guardrails. Perhaps you can provide students with a deadline range (e.g., turn in your first draft the week of October 10th). Or set default deadlines that require a small amount of effort to change, dissuading students from going against your suggestions.
Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219-224.
Burgess, M., Enzle, M. E., Schmaltz, R. (2004). Defeating the potentially deleterious effects of externally imposed deadlines: Practitioners’ rules-of-thumb. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(7), 868-877.
Shu, S. B., & Gneezy, A. (2010). Procrastination of enjoyable experiences. Journal of Marketing Research, 47(5), 933-944.