How to Use Deadlines to Make Life Better

Deadlines can be tools for focus and achievement, if used well. Check out these 4 easy tips to getting things done faster.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #206

It was my first day on the job. My manager explained that were in the middle of a big project, and the deadline was approaching rapidly. That sounded ominous. Being young and naive, I asked, "What will happen if we don't meet the deadline?" She looked at me and smiled, "Why do you think they call it a DEAD line? Mwah hah hah hah hah!"

I was young and foolish. I believed that if we didn't meet the deadline, we would be imprisoned. They would put us in a small room, 6 feet square, so small we can't even stretch out on the floor. The cell would have featureless walls, and no way to block out the ever-flickering harsh fluorescent light, or the incessant roar of other people's conversation. The only hint of personality would be a single 3x5 photograph we're permitted to bring into this purgatory. This was strong motivation to meet the deadline!

Then she showed me to my cubicle. I was very confused; we hadn't missed the deadline yet. "Er, if this is where I am now, what happens if I miss the deadline?" "Then we'll have to let you go." Go? Outside? Into the sun, near the trees, where there are birds chirping, and laughing children playing ball? This was my first hint that the corporate world did not make a lot of sense.

Tip #1: Use Short Deadlines to Motivate Action

I was recently running a Do-It Day, in which we used hourly check-ins to stay on track with our daily tasks. Participant Mary Idstein had a meeting during an action cycle. She told her team they had only half an hour, instead of their usual hour. She was afraid that wasn't enough time. Much to her surprise, everyone dove right in and got everything done in half the time. They sure were eager to get back to their cubicles!

Short deadlines keep us tightly focused and highly productive. It only works when the deadline is soon enough that our brains can grasp our remaining time and how we pace our work. With a really tight deadline, we throw out everything else (even if it's related to another looming deadline) and laser focus.

Tip #2: Schedule Meetings Back-to-Back

With super-short-term deadlines, like ending a meeting on time, your ability to meet the timeframe may depend on other people. You can only end a meeting if everyone is done. For example, in last week's status meeting, Melvin had to tell us how the current situation reminded him of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in which a 13th level Wrath of Impermiability was blocking his way to the beautiful princess. (He winked at his fiancée Bernice when he said "beautiful princess.")

It can be awkward to interrupt someone to say "Let's move this along now," unless you have a reason they can't argue with. I schedule meetings back-to-back. As the 10 am meeting starts, I say, "I have a hard stop at 10:30 am for another meeting." Then I sigh. Everyone nods in sympathy. They know how painful meetings are. Of course, they never once consider that they're the ones making my meeting so painful. I however am enlightened enough to realize that I might be doing something to make their meeting experience horrible. Probably not. But if so, that gives them even more motivation to hold to my 10:30 time limit. See? In my world, everything works out for the best. My best.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.