The Power of Setting Deadlines

Is it better to break up an assignment with a deadline into smaller parts, each with its own deadline? And is it better to have someone else assign you a deadline than create your own?

These are the kinds of questions Total Task Schedulers typically ask themselves in their quest for greater productivity. Fortunately, a recent article by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch sheds some light on both questions.

In an experiment, students were given a choice as to when to complete three papers, all of which were due by a certain date.

Dan Ariely

One group was given or imposed three evenly-spaced deadlines, while another was given the chance to set its own deadlines (apart from the final deadline). These students had the freedom to set all the deadlines to the very end. To make things interesting, there was a penalty attached for missing any imposed or chosen deadline.

Take a moment to guess… which performed best?

Klaus Wertenbroch

Well, some of the results may surprise you.

  • Most subjects set deadlines, even though there was a risk of doing so.
  • Only 12% chose the maximum freedom of setting all three deadlines for the last day.
  • Grades in the imposed deadline group were significantly higher.

In another study described in the same paper, students were given an incentive to find proofreading errors in three texts. Once again, there was a penalty for late submission. They were divided into three groups:

  • the first group was given or imposed evenly-spaced deadlines.
  • the second was given only the final deadline for all three assignments.
  • the third group created their own deadlines.

Some of the results were similar.

Once again, students preferred to space out their tasks rather than to set them all to the final deadline. Also, the first group performed best on the task, followed by the third, then the second group.

Also, the researchers performed a comparison between members of the first group and those in the third group who happened to create evenly spaced deadlines. Their results were similar, hinting that in the very first study, the difference in performance on the papers was due to the sub-optimal way in which the deadline dates were self-chosen.

On the other hand, the first group reported that they spent the most time on the task.  The second group spent the least.

The researchers’ conclusions?

  1. People create self-imposed deadlines when they suspect they might have a tendency to miss deadlines i.e. procrastinate. Even when there’s penalty for doing so, it helps them meet their goals.
  2. Externally imposed deadlines work even better than self-imposed deadlines.
  3. Self-imposed deadlines improve task performance in general, in the absence of externally-set deadlines.

As you may realize, Total Task Scheduling is all about creating self-imposed deadlines. The good news is that doing so makes perfect sense to people who are committed to high performance, and reducing their errors-in-execution.

What do you think of these results?

Procrastination, Deadlines and Performance: Self-Control by Pre-Commitment by Ariely and Wertenbroch