Final exams. Auditions. April 15th.

What do these have in common?

They’re deadlines. A final date by which we have to submit a body of work. So we count down the days, drag our feet, and shake our fist at the fast-approaching date.

Because as much as we may want to earn a 4.0 GPA, win a principal job, and remain on good terms with the IRS, turning these goals into reality takes work. And deep, thoughtful practice/writing/analysis isn’t always the funnest thing in the world. Especially when we are surrounded by an infinite universe of urgent, fascinating activities – like vacuuming our violin case or deep-cleaning the coffee maker.

Yet…where would we be without them?

Regular procrastination

I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator. As in, I finished my college applications so close to the deadline, that my mom had to race to the post office and knock on the back entrance after hours to ensure they were still postmarked that day.

As all procrastinators know, such shenanigans are needlessly stressful and lead to suboptimal outcomes. But one way or another, we usually get something done.

What happens if we have no deadlines?

Long-term procrastination

Blogger (and admitted procrastinator) Tim Urban explains in his TED talk, that what happens, sadly, is nothing. (BTW, if you are prone to procrastinating and have any work to get done today, steer clear of Urban’s blog Wait But Why, which is a time-sucking black hole of quirky awesomeness.)

We all have a list of dreams we’d like to realize someday. Write a children’s book. Live in Paris. Learn how to consistently pick out good watermelons.

But life happens, the weeks go by, and as deeply important as these things may be, they have no real deadlines, and never feel quite urgent enough to become priorities and rise to the top of our daily to-do list.

Until one day, it’s too late.

So how do we get around this most insidious form of procrastination and light that fire inside us?

Deadlines. And a life calendar.

Wait, but…what?

The life calendar

Intellectually, we know that “life is short.” But that’s way too abstract a concept for us to grasp on a more meaningful level.

For instance, we all know that popcorn is bad for us. But does knowing that a regular bag of movie popcorn has 37 grams of saturated fats really resonate? What does resonate is being presented with a plate of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac and Fries, and a big fat steak with baked potato and butter, and told that this is what 37 grams of saturated fat looks like1.

To make the finite nature of our time more tangible, Urban created a “life calendar.” Sort of morbid, but it’s a table of boxes, one box representing a week of your life, assuming a lifespan of 90 years. This is what mine would look like:

life calendar

Egad.

So with that in mind, how do we make the most of our time? Since “record all 6 Ysaÿe Sonatas” doesn’t have a natural deadline, can we just create one ourselves?

Perhaps – but there are some important guidelines to follow if we want self-imposed deadlines to be effective.

Self-imposed deadlines

A 2002 study recruited 60 students, who were tasked with proofreading three 10-page papers, and paid 10 cents for each error they found.

Unbeknownst to the participants the papers were written not by other students, but generated by this program, designed to create text that is grammatically correct, but mostly meaningless. Resulting in passages like this:

“Art is part of the genre of narrativity,” says Marx; however, according to Reicher[2] , it is not so much art that is part of the genre of narrativity, but rather the collapse, and eventually the rubicon, of art. In a sense, if the neoconstructive paradigm of reality holds, we have to choose between postsemantic narrative and textual subcultural theory. Lyotard’s critique of the neoconstructive paradigm of reality states that reality may be used to reinforce sexism, but only if Baudrillardist simulation is invalid; otherwise, Lacan’s model of postsemantic narrative is one of “deconstructivist desublimation”, and hence responsible for hierarchy.

Painful, right?

(If you’re in the mood for more, check out the Adolescent Poetry generator. And if your quartet is looking for a name, you might give the Band Names generator a try. I gave it a whirl and got “Four Blind Mirrors.” Profound, in an inexplicable sort of way.)

Three groups, three different deadlines

Anyhow, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

Group A was given evenly-spaced deadlines, with one proofread paper due every 7 days. Each day late would result in a $1 penalty.

Group B was given a single deadline at the end of 3 weeks, when all three papers would be due. Same $1 per day penalty.

Group C was allowed to choose their own deadlines at the outset – but on the condition that the deadlines would be binding and could not be changed (and also subject to the same $1 per day penalty). In theory, they could have set a deadline of the final day, but wisely set deadlines in advance of the final day. However, their self-imposed schedules varied, with some setting deadlines that were clustered closer together, and half of them setting deadlines that were evenly spaced throughout the 3-week span (which will be important in about 30 seconds from now).

And the verdict is…

From Ariely, D. & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science, 13 (3), 219-224.
Data from Ariely, D. & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219-224.

All in all, Group A, with externally-imposed deadlines of one paper every 7 days, detected the most errors, had the fewest late submissions, and as a result, earned the most money.

Group B, with only a single deadline at the end of 3 weeks’ time, detected the fewest errors, experienced the most delays in submitting the papers, and earned the least amount of money (for comparison, Group A earned about 4 times as much money).

Group C, which was responsible for setting their own deadlines, had results somewhere in the middle of the two groups. Definitely better than a single deadline at the very end, but not as good as having externally-set deadlines.

But remember how I said it would be important that only half of them set deadlines that were evenly spaced? Well, when the researchers looked only at those who set evenly-spaced deadlines, the differences between the externally-imposed and internally-imposed groups largely disappeared. In other words, it’s not that self-imposed deadlines didn’t work. They just had to be spaced more effectively (e.g. evenly, rather than clustered at the end).

Take action

So what comes next? Here’s one approach that has helped me:

1. Brainstorm a “bucket list

i.e. What are all the things that you’d love to do or experience in your lifetime? Brainstorm a list – and don’t worry so much about what’s possible or how you might achieve it. You’re not committing to anything, so don’t sweat it.

2. Process of elimination

When you have a good-sized list compiled, cut it in half, and in half again, and again, until you end up with 3-5 things that you feel the most excited about and drawn to.

3. Create milestones & binding deadlines

Method A: Create some milestones, and set some binding commitments that you can’t wiggle out of so easily. Like learning the Rococo Variations by July, and playing it through for a colleague whose opinion you respect. Or on a master class at a summer festival. Or posting it on YouTube.

Method B (the fun way): Alternately, use loss aversion to your advantage, leveraging a site like StickK to ensure you stick to your goal. Essentially, the idea is to put some money on the line, setting it up so that if you fail to follow through on your goals, the funds will be donated to an organization (or presidential candidate?) that you passionately oppose.

But either way, try setting up milestones that are more evenly spaced, so as to force you to stay on track over a longer span of time, rather than putting all your deadlines near the end.

Additional links

Watch Urban’s entertaining TED talk: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator

Read Urban’s life calendar post: Your Life in Weeks

Want to see what your own life calendar looks like? Create one instantly: Count Life

Footnotes

  1. From the Heath brothers’ book “Made to Stick” https://heathbrothers.com/made-to-stick-introduction/