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The Psychology of Deadlines

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This last couple of weeks has been rather busy. I have a few deadlines and a lot of psychology research and teaching tasks coming up – some for things I really enjoy, others I have found really hard to settle down to. Many of these jobs have deadlines looming – what is the psychology underpinning this, and how can we make them work for us? Are they intrinsically helpful or not?

Dead good at deadlines – an intrinsic skill

We all have deadlines, some of us thrive on them, but others find them stressful. Anyone working with others and/or with complex interdependent task needs deadlines, but psychologists have found that they can have negative effects.  As deadlines approach, we can get stressed (and think we are under more pressure than others).

When deadlines are very close, we can exchange accuracy for speed, which can lead to poor judgements. Some evidence also suggests we rely more on intuition when deadlines close. But, deadlines also improve negotiation outcomes, and are help teams organise. They are also said to ‘translate dreams into goals’ (which I guess is a good thing if you have nice dreams!). So, research (and anecdote) puts forward a mixed picture.

Reward or satisfaction? Deadlines and motivation

One way to explain why sometimes deadlines help and sometimes they do not is through ideas of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation come from inside yourself: you do things because they bring you satisfaction in and of themselves. Extrinsic motivation is driven by external factors (such as monetary reward or the threat of penalties).

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators can get you going. However, the former tends to be more long lasting, durable and, in general, a better predictor of ‘getting things done’ – especially when no-one is watching.

For my end-of-grant report, I really want to know what the results of my study are – it’s the neat bit of psychology. So, these deadlines are welcome, as they push things up a busy to-do list. They help structure my week/month/day’s work. In contrast, other work (processing some internal admin applications) feel more of a chore (I have to do them, as part of my job, for which I am paid).

Needless to say, the grant report is going well, whilst the admin is staring up at me now. (Blog writing has a deadline, but I am pretty intrinsically motivated). What does this have to with deadlines? If you are externally motivated, deadlines can mean bringing forward things you don’t want to do. This can be unpleasant, and increase procrastination. Interestingly, externally imposed deadlines have been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation. In contrast, internally imposed deadlines reduce procrastination. So, it may be much better to set your own deadlines, rather than have them set for you.

I observed this effect last night with my daughter. We often ask her to get ready by a given time (i.e., when the big hand on the clock reaches XXX). She usually smiles, nods, goes back to whatever important-three-year-old-stuff she is doing. The deadline comes, and goes, an no-one is closer to going to bed. It’s not that she doesn’t get the time bit (other, more understandable deadlines like ‘when Daddy has finished having a wee’ also don’t work!’).

I think it is the external deadline and extrinsic motivators. Last night, when we were going to leave some bubble-wrap out in a bowl ‘for the faeries to eat at night’ (magic is important in childhood), my daughter went to bed without fuss. I’ll never know if it was the intrinsic motivation (’I’ll go to sleep so the fairies come’) or the threat of faerie retribution (a bit Grimm) if caught awake, but the evening was relatively fuss-free that night.


An earlier version of this article was published on Psychology It Better.

Daniel Frings, PhD is an associate professor at London South Bank University. He has published research extensively in various fields including decision-making.

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