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Using Milestones and Deadlines for Greater Productivity

Nothing focuses the mind faster than an impending delivery date. You’ve accepted the task, done the research and played with the procrastination. Now, with the deadline in sight, you actually have to finish the job and hand over the goods. The change is massive and sudden. Knowing that your reputation and possibly your job is on the line has an amazing effect. Suddenly, a task that looked impossible becomes achievable. YouTube and viral emails still appear tempting but you can block them out. Your productivity goes through the roof. Instead of staring at the wall or pacing around the room, you’re hacking at the keyboard as though it’s stuck to your fingers. Even if you miss the deadline a little, the period between recognizing the urgency and completing the job is one of unparalleled attention and diligence. If only you could work that way all the time. Sprinting like this over a full working life is just about impossible but you can take some of the lessons learned from the effect of a tight deadline and use them to raise your work rate every day.

First, it’s important to understand that deadlines aren’t uniform. They pack different characteristics and each characteristic has a different effect on motivation. The outcome for the worker himself, for example, is one important influence. A deadline for a design that could win you a promotion or land a larger and more satisfying project is likely to be met. A threat from the wife that she’ll throw out anything in the garage that hasn’t been put away by the end of Sunday can be fairly safely ignored. Deadlines aren’t just dates, they’re also carriers of personal punishment and reward.

Missed Deadlines Are Your Fault

They’re also vehicles for organizational punishment and reward, and that’s important too. When a failure to meet a deadline is going to have a knock-on effect throughout the business, delaying the next stage in a project or causing large-scale changes to the marketing plan, those results also affect motivation. Even if you can shift the blame onto tardy suppliers or poor information, the knowledge that others will suffer will influence your ability to knuckle down and finish on time.

And personal interest in the project helps too. When a task is interesting, exciting and fun to do, you’re more likely to do it on time and less likely to be pulled away by the lure of a new post on an interesting blog or the chance to chat with a friend.

All of these things make up the task’s importance—to you and to the organization. Other factors affecting a deadline’s ability to drive you to get things done include its level of difficulty, and the specificity of both the task and the deadline goal. You’re much more likely to miss a deadline when the job is difficult, when you’re uncertain about the requirements, and when you’re not clear about when the project actually has to be delivered. Does “the end of next week,” for example, mean 5pm on Friday or, if the project is just going to sit ignored on a computer all weekend, can it include a bit of Monday too?

So deadlines are most effective at increasing productivity when they include real consequences, when you know what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by, and when you enjoy the job. Few tasks pack all of those things but the more you can include, the better.

But these factors are difficult to control. You don’t want every job to be life or death. A task that looks clear can become fuzzy as you work your way through it. And while you might start a new task buzzing with excitement, that thrill can quickly fade.

There is one characteristic of a deadline though that’s more powerful than all of the others combined, and it’s also under your control: its proximity. One group of researchers at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington has argued that a close deadline brings rewards closer, increases the challenge and raises motivation. It creates two psychological states, they argue: urgency and “felt accountability.”

Clearly, no one is going to ask for a tighter deadline just so that a task feels more urgent but deadlines can be made to feel closer simply by placing smaller versions—milestones—before the final due date.

Celebrating a Milestone with a Million-Dollar Party

This is something that happens anyway, argue the Foster Business School researchers in the book, Work Motivation: Past, Present, and Future. Using secretaries as an example, they describe how employees faced with a deadline continually assess their progress towards the goal, reallocating their time and effort depending their assessment of whether they’re likely to finish on schedule. In effect, workers are creating mental milestones that tell them whether they’re on the right track.

Those milestones can be built up and made concrete. Dan Carrison, writing in Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race Against Time, describes how Boeing organized a massive party to celebrate the first time all of the components of its new widebody 777 jetliner were put together. The company didn’t just invite all of the engineers and employees who had worked on every part of the plane to mark the event—which would have opened the celebration to 10,000 people—it invited their families too. Altogether, more than 100,000 people were able to tour the plane as proud relatives showed off the screws they had attached and the wing parts they had designed.

But the plane wasn’t finished. It would be another two years before it made its first flight. This wasn’t a celebration of the end of a job. It was an attempt to encourage workers to complete the task on time. Engineers were able to see what their work had achieved so far. They were able to understand what completing the project would create. And by allowing employees to bring their families, Boeing was able to recruit a giant team of cheerleaders: wives, husbands and children who would ask their staff about the big plane over the dinner table.

A party after the project is completed is a reward, Carrison writes. A party held while the project is still under way—when it’s met a milestone—is a motivational strategy.

Of course, you don’t have to throw a million-dollar party to mark your milestones but knowing when they are, celebrating their achievement and letting others know when you expect to be done can all keep you focused and motivated, even when the final deadline is far away.

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