Why Deadlines Promote Procrastination

Timo Gerhardt, Wednesday 21 September 2022 | Reading time: 7 min.

Deadlines are indispensable for an orderly project flow, but they can also lead to tasks being postponed. 

Deadlines play a central role in the project context. They ensure that tasks are completed on time so that subsequent tasks can start according to plan and the project is completed by the agreed deadline. A lack of deadlines can lead to chaos, as coordination of tasks and processes becomes almost impossible. 

Setting deadlines is a useful tool in project management that gives a certain degree of structure. However, a recently published study by Macquarie Business School in Australia and the University of Otago in New Zealand sheds a different light on this issue:

Based on the study, two surprising effects were proven:. First, that tasks without a deadline are completed faster on average. Second, if the task has a longer deadline, the probability that the task will not be completed at all increases. 

Lack of a deadline as a sign of urgency

One might assume that in the absence of a deadline, people think that the time period for completion is relatively long, similar to a generous deadline. Accordingly, a missing deadline would result in tasks being repeatedly postponed and eventually possibly forgotten. In practice, however, the opposite is true. A missing deadline is perceived as a signal of urgency.

The deadline as permission to postpone

Deadlines basically serve as motivation to get things done that one would otherwise put off. However, this is not always the case. If the deadline is not tight enough, people see this as an opportunity to postpone a task without having to reckon with negative consequences. In other words: we procrastinate. A longer deadline can mean that a task is postponed for longer. In turn, the longer the procrastination period, the more likely it is that the task will eventually be forgotten entirely.

The existence of a deadline leads to one of two outcomes: If the deadline is met, that is good. If it is not met, it is bad. If, on the other hand, there is no deadline,  the perception is: the sooner the task is completed, the better. Conversely, the later the task is completed, the worse. Thus, the incentive to complete a task quickly without a deadline is greater, while fixed deadlines that lie too far in the future can encourage procrastination. 

When are deadlines dispensable

1. The beneficiary is someone else

When we directly benefit from completing a task, we automatically recognize it as important and consequently as urgent. However, when it is mainly someone else who benefits from the prompt completion, then the task is not a high priority for us and the risk of procrastination increases. Not setting a deadline here can lead to wanting the task off the table quickly in order to be able to devote oneself to one's own important tasks.

2. The project deadline replaces the task deadlines

If the urgency of the overall project is obvious and the employee can recognize it without much cognitive effort, deadlines in the tasks may be dispensed with. For example, if the project consists of planning a trade fair appearance for a trade fair taking place next month, the psychological effect of omitting deadlines can ensure the fastest possible completion of tasks better than strict deadlines do.

3. Recurring tasks or continuous optimization

Deadlines can also be omitted for routine tasks or small projects that are useful but not urgent. Here it makes more sense to block out two to three hours of a day in quieter phases or set a weekly reminder to work through these tasks. Deadlines would only lead to artificial pressure build-up here, which can result in the negative effect of procrastinating or ignoring the tasks described above. 

How to set deadlines correctly

Even though deadlines can lead to procrastination,  if they are not set sensibly, they play a crucial role in most projects. If your project doesn't lend itself to waiving deadlines, here are some basic rules:

  • Trust: A good foundation of trust is a prerequisite for project success. Employees are thereby encouraged to reveal their problems. This is essential for meeting deadlines.
  • Communication: Disclose all relevant cornerstones of the project to your employees. By knowing all goals, milestones and deadlines, they can better assess the importance of their tasks and contribute to the success of the project.
  • Control: Everyone involved benefits from a regular overview of the progress of the tasks: employees can express their concerns about the planning and the project management can intervene in case of unforeseen events.
  • Inform: Employees should always be up to date about all project-relevant information, which ultimately includes all deadlines.
  • Utilization: It is essential for the project management to set deadlines according to the capacities of the employees. This ensures that the employee can complete the task within the given time frame without being able to postpone it unnecessarily. 

Regardless of whether you use regular deadlines in your project or have established a system without set deadlines: A project management solution like InLoox that is right for you adds value to your projects in many ways. 

Test InLoox now for free!

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