My favorite game in an airport is listening to other people talk about how important their jobs are. I try to guess their careers and the projects they’re working on based on the jargon they use as they blab at co-workers or talk on their mobile phones.
After years of non-scientific observations, I can report the following:
1. 100% of business people are working on important stuff. I can rarely tell exactly what the stuff is, but based on their conversations, it’s super important.
2. 100% of them are working with tight deadlines… their stuff has to be completed RIGHT NOW. In fact, it’s overdue already.
3. 50% of business people are a stressed out about these deadlines. The other 50% are stressing out someone else about them.
Deadlines. The most powerful drug in the business world. Here’s a guide to understanding your addiction and how you can control it… if you want to.
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
The deadline drug
How many times have you seen a movie that ends with a countdown clock? The hero has to work against incredible odds to accomplish something by a specific deadline with tremendous consequences hanging in the balance. Sometimes, it’s literally the end of the world.
Even if you know that the hero isn’t going to die or the city won’t be destroyed (because then the movie would end on a horrible note and totally suck), you still feel anxiety over the countdown.
It’s like we have this programming that can be activated every single time, to the point where we can’t even imagine missing a deadline because the consequences – real or imagined – loom too large. I mean, what’s the consequence of missing a “dead” line? “Death!” says the little voice in our heads.
Deadlines aren’t even a gateway drug. They’re heroin. I’ve been on them before and they are a very hard habit to kick.
Those frantic people in the airport? That’s been me, standing in the boarding line, cell phone glued to one ear and finger plugging the other so I could speak on a conference call that I couldn’t miss. Even though I knew that all of the other people on the call would be instant messaging or multi-tasking because that’s what I always did when they were talking.
I’m a reformed deadline junkie, but kicking the habit hasn’t been easy.
Please give me a deadline. Anything. I need a purpose.
(I was going to subtitle this section “Snorting (dead)lines” but I thought I was getting too dramatic with the drug references. I still think it’s quite creative, so here it is. Feel free to use the phrase in conversation.)
What reward do we get from these uber-critical deadlines that we strive accomplish? That’s simple:
The reward is self-worth.
I’m not being judgmental – remember, I’ve partaken of deadlines myself. The thing is, important tasks don’t just lie around waiting to be worked on; they demand to be worked on and completed. Completing them is important.
Ergo, those people who are doing the completing are also important.
How many times have you bragged about your full plate of deadlines to score psychic points in the game of life? How many weekends have you given to the deadline gods? How many vacation days have you not taken because there was no possible way that your company could carry on without you?
All for what? The temporary hit (sorry, tiny drug reference) of beating a deadline of course, but mainly to feed the self-image that our lives – at least our work lives – are important.
People who tell you how busy they are never seem to be not-busy, ever. They’re always busy, always on the verge of being completely overwhelmed and breaking down from overwork. Yet you know that somewhere deep inside they relish telling you this information.Endless deadlines: so important for feeling day-to-day relevance, so damaging for mental health. Click To Tweet
I’m well aware that his deadline culture doesn’t exist everywhere in the world. Here in the U.S., where we all seem to have a well-developed flair for drama, we take a lot of pride in driving ourselves to distraction with never-ending deadlines. Must be something in the water.
But let’s be fair: life does contain deadlines. We can’t pretend that nothing needs to get done on time. So let’s define this animal with a bit more precision.
There are four broad types of deadlines that we experience in life. (There are actually five; more on that in a moment.)
1. Natural deadlines
There is no changing these. We just have to deal with them.
- Hurricane makes landfall in five hours.
- Patient’s heart stops. You have five minutes or less to avoid irreversible brain damage.
- You turn into a werewolf when the full moon rises.
There is no flexibility here.
2. Societal deadlines
These are human-created, so they can be a little flexible, but are usually quite firm.
- You have ten days to appeal your traffic ticket.
- Tax filing is due by April 15th at midnight.
- The garbage cart must be wheeled to the curb by 6 am on Wednesday.
Society has decided that we are best served by having time limits to get things done. These deadlines pretty much apply to everyone equally.
3. Arbitrary deadlines
These are also created by humans, but usually by just a single person or a small group. They apply to only a certain set of people who all belong to the same organization. They are arbitrary in the sense that they aren’t set in stone like laws or regulations. Even though they seem firm, exceptions are granted all the time.
- The product launch date is March 1st.
- The article is due to the editor at 4 pm.
- The lunch order is due by 11:30 if you want to get your choice of sandwich and not the weird thing Tamara will order if she doesn’t hear from you.
Arbitrary deadlines are more flexible than society’s deadlines because a single person can decide to alter them. It’s what your company establishes to keep everyone on track, so they do fill a need, as aggravating as they are.
4. Capricious deadlines
Capricious: given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior.
Synonyms: fickle, inconstant, changeable, variable, volatile, unpredictable, temperamental.
The opposite of consistent. Sound like anyone you know?
These deadlines are generated by a single individual – usually your immediate boss – just because he can.
- Customer survey results must be collated and graphed by Friday to include in a PowerPoint that no one has asked for.
- Six variations for the new module must be coded by the progress-check meeting next Monday. We must be able to show full functionality instantly no matter which is selected.
- The sub-heading font must be changed in the 27-page report for the fifth time to match the sub-heading font in the latest report from upper management. Needed before you go home.
The worst creators of capricious deadlines are bosses who operate out of fear. Their worst nightmare is to be caught without an instant answer to any question asked by a superior. Saying, “I’ll get back to you on that” is, to them, the same as saying, “Please fire me now.” 3The worst creators of capricious deadlines are bosses who operate out of fear. Click To Tweet
This mindset drives them to overwork every single aspect of their jobs while dragging their employees into this madness. They generate lots of short deadlines for information that you know has a very low chance of ever being used.
Deadlines and the meaning of life
Now… where do these deadlines fit in our search for meaning or purpose in our lives?
The more arbitrary the deadline, the more important it makes us feel. What’s going on here?
Natural and societal deadlines don’t give us a chance of making a name for ourselves. What do you get for making it out of the hurricane landfall zone? Not dead. Woo hoo, (almost) everybody got that, no special reward there. And getting your trash can to the curb on time or paying your parking ticket without incurring a penalty are the not kinds of things you can post on Facebook, no matter how committed you are to publicly documenting your life.
Avoidance of pain is simply not a satisfying reward.
But getting the product launched on time – maybe, if you kill yourself, even ahead of schedule! – brings accolades and the warm glow of approval. And pleasing your boss by meeting his capricious whims? It might just make him happy enough to give you the next pay raise or promotion. (Might, I said. Don’t hold your breath.)
These scenarios are not just meeting a deadline, they are moving ahead in life. At least, it feels that way.
Why and how you avoid personal deadlines
So what’s the problem? Everyone needs to move ahead, right?
Well, there’s one type of deadline missing from the list above: Yours. The ones you create to meet your goals and move your own life ahead.Far too many people try to get ahead in life by completing other people’s deadlines. Click To Tweet
The problem is that, in the short term, nothing happens when we miss our own deadlines:
“So I didn’t see the financial advisor by the end of January. I don’t retire for fifty years, I’ve got time.”
That seems even less consequential than the garbage not getting picked up on Wednesday. It’s just unusual to suffer strict penalties for missing personal deadlines. Worse for our motivation is that there are no immediate rewards for meeting them, either.
I mean, sure, eventually you’ll hear back if you meet the application deadline for night school courses that will eventually earn you a pay raise. But that’s not nearly as gratifying as getting an immediate pat on the back from your boss for getting the agenda for the department training meeting done.
Which is why so many people vacuum up other people’s deadlines like they’re loose ten-dollar bills, while leaving no time to accomplish their own.
You see where I’m going with this, right? Do I have to spell it out? OK I’ll spell it out:
You’re giving away your life
If you only strive to get ahead by meeting other people’s deadlines, will your life ever end up where you want it to be? Can it?
To put it another way:
- If deadlines are the steps to achieving a goal…
- And you rarely ever set and meet your own important deadlines…
- Is it possible to end up in a place that is unique to you and only you?
Video: Deadline detours and losing your purpose in life
3 minutes, 28 seconds | subtitles available
Your deadline breakdown in nice colored charts
Here in the real world, we can’t avoid working on other peoples’ deadlines. I’m not saying you should strive for total avoidance. Off the top of my head, I’d go with these figures:
Maximum reasonable % of deadlines you allow others to set for you
Those percentages include all four types of non-personal deadlines, up to and including hurricanes. They are average figures. During a hurricane, for example, you are allowed to devote 100% of your time to a single deadline (you can choose which one.)
What fills the rest of the deadline capacity?
Let’s break that 75% for employed people down further. Here’s a reasonable percentage to shoot for.
Reasonable % breakdown of the deadlines set by others
Now about that remaining 25%. Even the busiest working parent with kids and elderly relatives should never give away all 25% to others. Somewhere in there has to be time to work on your own future or someday the other commitments will be gone and you’ll suddenly find yourself adrift.
Example % breakdown of your personal deadlines
Fixing your deadline ratios
I know. I know. All the deadlines are important and there is no way to squeeze anything for yourself in. Since I’m here to help, I’m giving you your very own personal deadline wedge and a hammer:
It’s for use on your personal pie chart. It’s not too big, but that’s OK because it’s only used for a single personal deadline… whatever is the most important thing that you need to get done for yourself right now, or very soon.
Practice with one deadline to start, to get the feel for what it takes to squeeze other people’s deadlines a bit to make room for your own.
Implementation is easy (wedges are pretty simple, brute force tools.) You set a deadline date, and ta-dah… your chart looks like this:
You’ve just shaved a little time from all the other important stuff – people will barely notice. The trick, of course, is allowing nothing in the entire world (except that troublesome hurricane) to stop you from meeting your deadline.
You did it? Great. Here’s your next wedge… actually, I’ll just give you the whole set right now:
Trust me: it gets a little easier each time to you use them.
There’s really only one important deadline
Hint: it’s included in the word.
Look, I know your career is super-important. Someone could make a movie about your business exploits, the spreadsheets updated, the presentations polished, and the totally unreasonable deadlines that you accomplished ahead of schedule.
And I know those deadlines aren’t going to meet themselves – someone’s gotta lean in and crush ’em. It might as well be you getting all the glory and bragging rights and stories you can tell your grandchildren about how you single-handedly fixed the Midwest conference vendor presentation scheduling nightmare of 2016.
But seriously. Some perspective, please. Can we just get the work done without the adrenaline spike of freaking out every single day over arbitrarily-set countdown clocks?
Go. Travel. Do your business. Talk on your mobile. But cut the drama just a bit. And focus more on your important personal deadlines.
I’ll be in the boarding area. Eavesdropping.
Until next time… remember: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.