Set Powerful Deadlines

By Leo Babauta

This week, I am cramming out work, because I’m leaving on a cruise that’s going to last almost a month.

I am not usually this productive, but I’m really killing it because I want to get all my work done before I leave.

On the cruise, I have two big projects I’ve set for myself, with a deadline to finish them before the cruise ends.

Before the cruise, I also have a challenge to finish the first 60 lessons of the Pimsleur Spanish course, which I’ve tried and failed to do a few times before (!) but am now going to complete. How am I able to complete it this time? I gave myself a deadline to finish the lessons by the cruise, or my friend Tynan will get to punch me in the face if I don’t.

These are self-imposed deadlines, and they’re absolutely working.

I’m not always a fan of deadlines and goals, but it’s good to be able to use whatever works best for you. If you’re working great without deadlines and goals, then by all means, keep going. But if you’re struggling to push a project forward (or a learning project like language lessons), then you might try a self-imposed deadline.

Here are some things that work for me:

  1. Have an external motivation for meeting the deadline. For example, leaving for my trip is a deadline for all the work I have to do, because I won’t have good internet connections on the trip, so I really need to get pretty much everything done. Having Tynan punch me in the face if I don’t do all my Spanish lessons means I’m definitely going to do my lessons.
  2. But have a stronger internal motivation. The external motivation helps a lot to give you that extra push, but if you really don’t care about a project, your heart won’t be in it. The heart is the important part. So for me, I know that I’m doing all my work because I want to help people who are struggling, and that connection with them and intention to help is what really motivates me. For the Spanish lessons, I’m motivated by a desire to connect more deeply with locals when I travel, rather than just being a tourist and expecting everyone to speak English to me.
  3. Set yourself up for success. Just having the motivation and deadline won’t do the trick … you have to figure out how you’re going to execute. When exactly will you do the Spanish lessons? What parts of your day will you block off for doing the work? Actually block them off, and learn to focus while you’re in those blocks. For me, remembering my deeper motivation and the external deadline reasons will usually pull me into focus when I want to run to distraction.

There are two big reasons why all of this works, even if it seems extrinsic and excessive.

The first reason is that it pushes you past the fear. Even if we have good internal motivation, we put off the work or learning projects we really want to do because of fear. We fear failure, discomfort, not knowing, not being good at something. In other words, we fear uncertainty. And we run from uncertainty, every day, throughout the day.

But the deadline, set up in this way, helps push past this fear. That puts you where you want to be, doing the work and not thinking about whether you should do it. Not trying to run from it.

The second reason is that it takes away choice. All day, we have choices – check email, check social media, read blogs and news sites, clean the house, do an errand, or do the work we want to do. We’re exhausted by all this choice, and when push comes to shove, we often choose not to do the things we really want to do but are afraid of.

Deadlines with strong motivators (like getting punched in the face, or losing $10,000 if you don’t do it) will remove the choice. Suddenly, you know for sure that you’re going to do the work, or do the language lessons. You’ll sit down, and just do it, without thinking about it, because the choice has been made for you.

You don’t need deadlines every day, all the time. But sometimes, setting up a powerful deadline to remove choice and push you past the fear is exactly what you need.