The Science of Deadlines, Writing, and Procrastination

Deadline.

The word itself has an ominous, unsettling feel: the point beyond which you must not pass. According to Merriam-Webster, the word originated in an actual line beyond which straying prisoners would be shot. Ouch.

Deadlines feel like impending doom if you’re not prepared. Ask any college student in the days before midterm papers are due.

Yet the word has an unfair rap; for many people, deadlines breathe life into the writing process, spurring us to take action. They inspire us to set schedules and get to work amidst the competing distractions of our lives.

Many writers maintain a love/hate relationship deadlines. We count on them to give us a sense of urgency as motivation. Often, we do better work with committed due dates.

The Science of Deadlines

Cognitive science backs me up on this point. More specifically, Dan Ariely does. In his book Predictably Irrational, he describes an experiment conducted with three of his classes at MIT. (Note to college students: never trust a psychology professor.)

Students in every class had to write three papers, which would account for most of their grades.

  • For one class, Ariely assigned due dates spaced evenly through the semester.
  • For another, all the papers were due at the end of the semester; students could turn them in earlier, but would receive no extra credit for doing so.
  • In the third class, students picked their own paper schedules. Once they did, they were committed those dates.

Most of the students in the class with the self-assigned schedule chose to distribute their deadlines through the semester.

The results? The deadlines had a major effect on the quality of the papers.

The class with traditional, evenly-spaced due dates imposed from above earned the highest grades. The class with no due dates did worst. In the third class, the grades were pulled down by those students who had decided against multiple, well-spaced deadlines.

Writes Ariely in Predictably Irrational, “Without properly spaced deadlines–deadlines that would have forced the students to start working on their papers earlier in the semester — the work was generally rushed and poorly written.”

This research illustrates three realities:

  1. Nearly everyone procrastinates. The longer the time period, the greater the risk of procrastination.
  2. Deadlines are an important defense against procrastination.
  3. Waiting until the last moment generally degrades the quality of our writing, particularly in work that involves research and synthesizing ideas

Even without sitting in his classroom, we can learn from Dan Ariely. Time commitments counteract the dangers of procrastination, and we deliver better quality work with sufficient time and discipline.

Commit Yourself

If your writing project has no externally imposed schedule, commit to your own deadlines. When you work on longer projects, create interim milestones to monitor your progress and maintain motivation.

For example, a schedule for a five-page research-based paper might look like this:

  • Research completed: the 2nd
  • Outline: the 4th
  • First draft: the 10th
  • Revisions from the team: by the 15th
  • Proofreading: the 20th
  • Publication: the 25th

The danger of self-imposed deadlines is that it is easy to let them slide, giving yourself another day or more throughout. The classroom deadlines had ramifications; papers turned in late earned lower scores.

If you tend to let schedules slip, build accountability into self-imposed deadlines.

Consider adding social pressure: tell friends or colleagues about your deadline. If you miss the date, you have to explain it to others. Some writers team up to serve as “accountability partners” for each other, reporting on status. Attending a writer’s group can serve this same role.

Even if you don’t share your commitments with others, keep them firmly in your sights. Remind yourself of the progress you’re making and the distance yet to travel, particularly on projects with long timelines.

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Originally published at annejanzer.com on March 3, 2016.

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