Legendary jazz composer Duke Ellington once said, “I don’t need time. I need a deadline.” If that was true for Sir Duke, it is also true for you. When you have set deadlines, you are more likely to stay on task, make the most of your time, and achieve success in every facet of your life.
Deadlines can be stressful, but you’ll find that you achieve a whole lot more with them than without them.
Focus and organization
There’s a reason why writers and editors say deadlines focus the mind: Because it is easy to lose track of time without them. Between the drive-bys at work, all the domestic distractions, and other detours, you can lose precious time needed to get things done.
One way deadlines can be used to keep on track is by using them as part of setting up your list of your priorities for the next day. Set at least one realistic deadline for a key project as you review the following day’s schedule and think through how long it will really take to complete the rest of your agenda.
Another way to use deadlines is to force you to develop a plan for meeting them. After all, there’s nothing more frustrating to you and your colleagues than a missed deadline. By taking time to figure out what a deadline should be, you may find out the current due date is unrealistic and set a better one.
Meanwhile you can use deadlines to keep your colleagues on task. This will take more than just reviewing a schedule. As you set a hard deadline, you and your team develop a timeline and outline key steps that must be performed in order to get everything finished.
Chris Coletti, the trumpeter for the group Canadian Brass, uses Ellington’s statement as a guiding tool for his life. Each day, he sets deadlines for everything from practicing notes to developing his performance style.
But it isn’t just about scheduling. As Coletti points out, simply changing the statement is his mind from “I need to practice at least an hour” to “I only have an hour to improve” focuses his mind on getting the most out of his time. This means only playing tunes (and listening to songs) that best help him hone his talent.
It would be even nice to take a Focus Thursday (or another day of unscheduled time) and develop projects as well as complete other work. But those days should really be used for the big projects that just can’t be worked on during a busy schedule. Just as importantly, deadlines can actually keep you from dawdling on busywork that should be done quickly anyway.
Saying to yourself that you only have 30 minutes to answer emails or an hour to finish a weekly progress report, as Coletti suggests, is a key way to maximize the power of deadlines. You can also use the previous night to figure out what should be on deadline and what may not belong on your agenda at all.
Accountability and reward
Deadlines exist for another reason: To hold you and others accountable for not meeting them as well as to celebrate accomplishments. In many ways, a deadline allows you to take charge of your own circumstances even when so much of your life can seem out of your control. You’ll have to build sticks and carrots into deadlines in order to maximize their power.
One way is to include as many people as possible in knowing what the deadline. At home, of course, this means your spouse – and given the headaches of an annoyed spouse, awkward conversation, you will probably get the work done. The same is true if you include your boss in setting the deadline. If anything, your supervisor may set a firmer deadline, putting a fire under you to get things done.
What about your own staff? One way to encourage them to meet their deadlines is to set up weekly contests. Whoever meets the most deadlines can get a reward of their choice — be it a Starbucks gift card or a day off they can use later in the year.
The most-important accountability and reward tool for meeting deadlines? You. If you don’t take your own deadlines seriously, then it won’t matter. And if you meet a deadline, you can treat yourself to whatever you want.