That Deadline’s Not Gonna Help You Get It Done, Actually


Deadlines can be the bane of workers’ lives and a source of constant pressure. Despite these downsides, though, most would agree they play a key role in getting work done and are essential for efficiency. If we didn’t have deadlines, would any work ever even be completed?

Turns out, yes, actually. A new study published in Harvard Business Review found that deadlines don’t in fact carry as much weight as we thought.

Researchers invited 3,276 people to take a short online survey in exchange for a $10 donation to charity. Some participants were given a one-week deadline, others had a one-month deadline, and a final group had no deadline at all.

It was that group — members with no deadline at all — who returned the most surveys as compared with the other two groups. Not only did more of them complete the task, but they also responded more quickly.

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The conclusion? To keep people from procrastinating, don’t give them a deadline.

“A deadline signals the importance and urgency of a task, so not surprisingly, people often interpret a long deadline as permission to delay,” Maroš Servátka of Australia’s Macquarie Business School, one of the four researchers, told HBR.

“You might assume that the lack of a deadline would be viewed in much the same light. But in fact, people tend to interpret it in just the opposite way, as meaning ‘Get this done as soon as possible!’ The urgency and pressure are implied.”

Servátka said the researchers were sure not to tell people they had an unlimited amount of time to send the survey back — they simply didn’t mention a date.

“Theoretically, the two are the same, but in practice, they get very different results,” says Servátka.

So, how should we use this conclusion? To ensure things get done — and fast — should we take away all deadlines? Short answer: no.

“Our results by no means imply that you never want to give people a deadline,” says Servátka. “If you didn’t set deadlines for something as complex as preparing an article, people might not be able to prioritise correctly. It all depends on context.”

Also important to note is that the task at hand was to benefit others — if the participants completed the task, they’d be donating to charity. Servátka points out that the study supports charities’ current strategy of not sending an end date for donations.

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“The findings also have implications for anyone conducting surveys; response rates should be higher and faster without a stated deadline,” he says. “Omitting a deadline could be useful in a personal context, too — for example, when asking a spouse to complete a do-it-yourself project that’s important primarily to you.”

In an organisational context, if you were to ask a favour from a colleague, the findings suggest not giving them a deadline would make it more likely they’d do it — and right away, too.

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