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Deadlines - Don't change them!

By: Roger Creasy

What are the effects of extending a deadline? All leaders have been put in the position of "needing" to extend a deadline. Perhaps you are not reaching a goal of the project, or outside forces are introducing new challenges to the project. Human nature causes nearly everyone to push deadlines, to procrastinate. But, is extending deadlines a good idea?

Why do we push deadlines?

A goal means we need to accomplish something. Many folks procrastinate because of fear. They fear failure, and avoid it as long as (or longer than) is possible. Others underestimate how long tasks take. As a leader, it is your responsibility to recognize and manage procrastination in the members of your team.

M=G-D Motivation (M) is a function of the distance (D) of the goal (G)

When the completion of a goal is distant, motivation to reach the goal is low. The formula above is especially true for deadlines. When the deadline is weeks or even years away, we think there is plenty of time. Sure, we will work toward the goal - with low energy and whatever drive we can muster. But, as we near completion, as we see we are close to completing the goal, or hitting the deadline, motivation soars. We put more energy into completing the tasks necessary to reach the goal.

What happens when you extend a deadline

In her Harvard Business Review blog post, Here's What Really Happens When You Extend a Deadline, Heidi Grant Halvorson says that extending a deadline causes you to lose motivation and to procrastinate. By extending the deadline you push the goal further away; my formula says that the further away the goal is, the lower the motivation. You or your team feels relief that the goal is no longer looming just around the corner. You can relax, or move your attention to other, nearer goals. Human nature tells you that you can procrastinate. Have you ever heard someone use the excuse for procrastination, "I work better under pressure"? Perhaps you have said it yourself? My formula above is why. As we approach the deadline for the goal we feel more motivated to complete it. Halvorson says "It's really far more accurate to say that if you are a procrastinator, you work because there is pressure." If there is no pressure, procrastinators don't work toward the goal. When a deadline is extended all that really happens is the last-minute pressure to reach the goal is delayed. As the new deadline is approached, the motivation increases again.

How to avoid extending deadlines

The important thing is to keep motivation as high as possible throughout the path to the goal. We humans are terrible at gauging how long it takes to complete a task. Reaching a goal, especially one made up of many complex parts, takes careful planning. Here are things that help avoid extending deadlines:

  • Use the Salami Method (Eating an entire salami is overwhelming. But, you can eat a slice at a time.) - break the larger goal into multiple goals, set milepost goals with firm deadlines
  • When planning, don't build time in for deadline extension
  • To make the above possible, don't underestimate how long it takes to reach milepost goals. Know what can actually be accomplished and how long tasks require.
  • Plan carefully
  • Review your plan regularly as your team works toward the goal. Are you on schedule?

Deadlines sometimes must be extended. Unexpected things happen, and priorities shift. But, consider carefully before extending a deadline - thing about the impact and what the extension really accomplishes.  

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Publication Date: 2013-11-10 08:06:17