Productivity: Why do we all work better to a deadline?

This post is part of a series in Productivity and Getting Shit Done. You can read the original introduction post here and part #1 here and part #2 here.

The power of a deadline

Have you ever been working on something for weeks and weeks, months and months, and barely made any progress? Feels like you’re going nowhere?

And yet, you still manage to get it done and deliver by your deadline?

I’ve had this feeling with:

  • university papers
  • delivering wedding galleries
  • these very blog posts (!!!)

In fact, if you’re anything like me, you always, always deliver. Every. Single. Time.

No matter how much time you’ve got, whether 3 months – or 3 hours – the work gets done.

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law dictates that work will expand to fill the time available.

I’ve seen it in action in everything from watching my wife prepare dinner, through to big monstrous IT projects, and anything in between.

Our brain knows and understands the implication of that deadline, and will only allow you to take action when that deadline presents a risk.

When your brain knows something is due, it doubles-down to get it done.

Define the end of everything

This is literally, the secret.

Don’t define when you will start something, define when you will finish it.

The most successful people define a task by when it’s due to complete, not due to start.

Such a small change, but such an important distinction.

What does this look like for a creative?

It might be:

  • telling your clients when you’ll deliver their gallery
  • creating a calendar item, and only allowing social media time within that window
  • telling yourself you’ll finish your emails before your 25min pomodoro timer beeps
  • turning up to my weekly Blogging Bootcamp calls with a wedding blogged!

The difference is, all of these have a completion time, not a start time.

Yeah… a deadline.

My approach

I use a combination of 2 things:

  • My calendar
  • My “focus list”


If something must occur in a very specific and strict timeframe, it goes in the calendar.

Every. Time.

All meetings – obviously – but also any other deadlines, whether external or self-imposed.

For me, I control and restrict my time heavily. Everything from picking up my son from daycare, to my morning run, to specific daily/weekly actions I must do, are in my calendar.

As an example, here’s today’s schedule:

I don’t need to explain the power of a calendar, the appointments, and how they impact the urgency in your brain. These just work.

Focus List

Finally, I don’t use a “to do” list in the traditional sense, because they just becomes screens and screens, pages and pages, of stuff.

A “focus list” is broken into the following sections:
=== NEXT 10 MINUTES ===
=== NEXT HOUR ===
=== NEXT DAY ===
=== NEXT WEEK ===
=== NEXT MONTH ===

Actions, tasks, items – they get placed in here based on their “urgency”.

I review this daily, but at any point in time, I’m only looking at the === NEXT 10 MINUTES === section – once that’s completed, I allow myself to jump into the === NEXT HOUR === or === NEXT DAY == sections, and move something up.

Simple, but powerful.

What do you think? Could you schedule your work on when a task will finish?

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