There’s no doubt that work deadlines can be stressful. When you have too many, you can feel overwhelmed. And looming deadlines have a habit of encouraging last-minute dashes for the finish line, like when students pull ‘all-nighters’ in an attempt to achieve weeks’ worth of essay writing in a handful of long, adrenaline-fuelled hours.
Yet there’s no question deadlines can serve a positive psychological function – after all, without them, many students might never even finish their work.
You can see evidence for the power of deadlines in the ‘real world’, too. For instance, in 2015, when the US National Science Foundation dropped its usual twice-yearly deadlines for grant submissions in geoscience, as part of an attempt to help the overburdened vetting system, the effect was dramatic. Annual submissions fell by 59%; without the pressure of a deadline, it seems many scientists lacked the urgency and motivation to deliver their applications.
As new research findings shed light on the psychology of deadlines, we can learn ways that deadlines can be used to increase focus and boost perseverance. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – as many of us adapt to unstructured days working from home – the lessons are particularly timely.
Social psychologist Nira Liberman and her colleagues at Tel Aviv University have been studying the psychological effects of deadlines. To help us understand ‘goal gradients’, they give the example of how, when you read the first chapter of a 10-chapter book, it takes you just one tenth of the way to completing the book, yet when you have two paragraphs to go, the same or similar amount of reading effort will take you 50% further toward finishing.
Part of the motivating effect of a deadline, then, is that it provides you with constant feedback on how much further you have to go until task completion, enabling goal gradients to have their effect.
“As less of the task remains to be done, each unit of effort is perceived as more effective in that it closes a larger proportion of the gap to the goal,” Liberman’s team write. (A similar principle also helps explain why charitable donations ramp up as a fund-raising effort nears its goal.)
Another popular theory is that, as we approach a deadline, or get near to completing a task, this has the effect of reducing ‘opportunity costs’ – essentially, the lure of all the other things you could be doing instead. After all, if I have just one hour left before the deadline for finishing this article, there is not a great deal else I could use the time for, so I may as well plough on. However, without that line in the sand, there would be an almost infinite number of appealing things that I could be doing instead of working on the article.
Liberman’s team recently demonstrated the galvanising power of knowing when a task will be finished. They recruited dozens of undergrads to complete thousands of trials of a tricky computer-based mental task that required constant concentration. The whole boring exercise took about 90 minutes to complete. Crucially, the researchers provided half the participants with constant feedback on their progress through the exercise – both how many trials they had to go in each block of 240 trials, and after each block, how many blocks they had left to go. The other participants, in contrast, had no idea how many more trials or blocks they had to do.
There was a striking difference in the performance of the two groups – the students who knew how much further they had to go reached a superior level of peak performance in terms of their speed and accuracy, and yet they said they felt less fatigued, and they took shorter breaks between blocks.
“We think that participants in our experiment who did not know when the task would end conserved their efforts,” Nira Liberman, one of the study co-authors told me. “Imagine going on a journey that is very long and tedious with no end in sight. In situations of uncertainty people tend to think of the ‘worst case scenario’ – so in our study they made a grim estimate of how much energy they needed to conserve.” In contrast, she added, because the other group knew when the task was going to end, they were able to perform an “end spurt”, similar to how runners are able to ramp up their effort for the final mile or when they see the finishing line in the distance.
Read the whole story: BBCMore of our Members in the Media >