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How to make deadlines work best for you

People who tend towards procrastination are all too familiar with the advice that they set themselves a deadline.

But really, if you’re being honest, it’s hard to take that kind of deadline seriously, because you know that it can be postponed. On the flip side, if you have a tight deadline set by a superior at work, it can cause stress and frustration.

This all begs the question: Are deadlines even a useful method for getting things done? Two labour researchers explain the psychology behind deadlines and how to use them effectively.

Final sprint

Hannah Schade is a researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Employment Research at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany.

As she points out, especially in these coronavirus times, structure is enormously important; people who have too much freedom often get bogged down too easily. “Deadlines bring structure to the hodgepodge of to-dos,” explains Schade.

Deadlines also help set you up to make a final sprint: “If you know that your work is over when you hand it in at time X, you can often increase your productivity,” she explains. But if this end point does not exist, people can be less productive.

People who have high expectations for themselves can often find that a deadline is a good way to set a fixed point at which to finish their work, instead of continuing to try to improve it.Larger place

Setting a deadline alone, however, usually isn’t enough.

As Corinnna Peifer, a professor of work and organisational psychology at Germany’s University of Luebeck point outs, it has to be embedded within a successful goal-setting process.

This is where the SMART criteria can be useful. The letters stand for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound – criteria that help you figure out what exactly needs to be done and what the end product should look like.

Key points should be defined so that the result can be measured against them; the meaning behind the task should be relatively clear-cut; and the deadline should be clear and realistic.

“Above all, it’s important not to take on too much. Otherwise, a deadline is demotivating and just causes stress and frustration,” according to Peifer. Work should be demanding, and being under time pressure can have a positive effect on performance, at least in the short term – but that applies only if the tasks still seem to be doable within the time frame.Go with the flow

“A sprint here and there is OK, but recovery phases are important,” says Peifer, who also researches “flow experience”.

When in the flow, people deeply immerse themselves in their work and are very concentrated and productive. To reach this state, it helps to have clear goals that optimally challenge the person; a realistic deadline can help contribute to flow.

Schade suggests turning to social controls as a way to commit yourself to your work: For example, you could suggest to your colleagues that you present your results before you have to deliver the final product. That gives time to incorporate possible suggestions for improvement into the end product.Double deadline

Schade also recommends always planning in a buffer period – “and it shouldn’t be after work or over the weekend.”

It’s better to set a kind of double deadline – that is, to set a deadline before the actual submission date. The time between deadlines should also be much, much bigger than you think: “You never get as much done as you set out to do,” says Peifer. – dpa

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