Do Deadlines Help?

Lessons from The Personal Kanban book


As I was reading the book, The Personal Kanban, I came across this experiment done by MIT professor Dan Ariely on deadlines. He was teaching the same thing to three classes (more like three sections of same class). As you would expect a professor in Psychology and Behavioral Economics to do, he decided to use this opportunity to run an experiment. Students of each class had to submit three papers which would account for most of their grades. But classes differed in their submission timelines.

  • First class was assigned fixed due dates for each paper which were evenly spaced throughout the semester.
  • Students from second class were asked to pick their own deadlines, but they had to pick them in the beginning of semester and had to commit to those dates.
  • Students from third class had no deadlines, they were just required to submit all three papers before the end of semester.

All three groups had late submission penalties as well.

So what happened at the end of semester?

The students in the first group, with more traditional evenly spaced out deadlines earned the highest grades. The papers submitted by the second group who set their own deadlines came second, and the papers from the third group, with no deadlines whatsoever, had the worst grades.

Why did this happen?,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:good,fl_progressive:steep/

Turns out that most of the students who did not have any deadlines, procrastinated all three papers till the end of semester. Other courses which had deadlines or other things in general took priority and they probably had to rush their work in the end. The second group’s average was pulled down by those students who didn’t space out their deadlines well. The students in the first group probably also completed their papers closer to the deadline, but thankfully for them, they had these externally imposed deadlines well spaced out.

I can definitely see this happening. No matter how much I disliked deadlines in my courses, they did help in research proposals being produced which I thought were never possible. But do these results mean that one should try to have deadlines to get everything done? To be honest, I am not sure. I feel that while deadlines can be helpful in getting something done, they can also limit our creativity. If one is working on some research idea, but is facing a tight deadline, then there wouldn’t be much incentive to think of something big, or try something unusual. Similarly, in a project too, you might want to try out another solution that might work better for the problem, but if a deadline is approaching, it would create an incentive to go for tried and tested solution. Moreover, I think too less number of deadlines is not really a problem anyway in most of the workplace settings.

Where I think deadlines can be helpful is more in personal space. There can be many things which are important but not urgent, and it is easy to procrastinate on them. This can include learning a new skill, a new language or any other activity which gives returns in future. Then again, self imposed deadlines often don’t have that bite as externally imposed deadlines. Maybe a good middle ground is to have some accountability by having a deadline and telling a friend about it. And that friend can check in on you whether you actually did the thing you said you were going to do. I personally don’t have too much experience having an accountability buddy but have heard/read good things about it. There is also a market for it where one can find an accountability coach, but I feel a friend would work just fine too. Would love to hear how you think about deadlines.