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Why We Miss Deadlines

In a time-urgent world, the excuse factory is busy.

We all know people who screw up dinner invitations by calling to say they are setting out after they are supposed to have arrived. Most of us are more scrupulous yet repeatedly miss deadlines. Why?

One of the more common deadlines missed involves writing projects, whether it is starting a novel or completing a student paper.

Writer's Block

Writer's block is very common and easy to detect. The author has no trouble telling a friend what the writing project is about, but once they sit down to write, their minds, and the page, remain blank.

The underlying issue in writer's block is perfectionism. The writer knows what the project is about. Rather, they are excessively critical of their own ideas. Nothing lives up to expectation, nothing gets written down.

There’s a simple solution to writer's block. The writer must tell themselves that they are making a crude first draft that can later be improved upon. They must short-circuit the self-defeating effects of their own perfectionism.

While perfectionism is often a culprit in missing self-imposed deadlines, it is not nearly so important in socially imposed deadlines, from dinner dates to doctor appointments. In such cases, social conflicts play a bigger role.

Psychological Conflict

This is captured in an old joke about the psychiatrist watching the time a client arrives. If the person is early, the psychiatrist says, “You are over-anxious!” If they are late, it is interpreted as passive-aggressiveness. Being exactly on time is called out as being obsessive.

There is probably some truth in the insight that when a person is repeatedly late to appointments, they do not really want to keep them. Arriving too early on a regular basis may well reflect a high level of anxiety. Researchers also find that procrastination is more of a problem in people who are highly impulsive. Improving emotion regulation also reduces procrastination.

In general, though, how late or early a person is has less to do with psychological conflicts than with what is going on in the outside world.

We may miss our deadline because we are distracted, because we are relatively disorganized, or because we have not put in the work of preparation.


Pavlov's lab assistant arrived late, because the Russian Revolution had begun, and the streets were full of militants. Pavlov was not impressed by his excuse. “The next time there is a revolution,” he said, “just get up earlier.”

Distractions may be the leading reason that most of us miss deadlines and appointments. If a storm just dropped a large tree on your house, you can be forgiven for forgetting that appointment with the dental hygienist.

Whether it is storms, political crises, or pandemics, anything that interrupts our normal routine can make us miss deadlines simply because our attention is diverted elsewhere.

Whatever is happening, some individuals are liable to be late simply because they lead disorganized lives.


Some people lack time urgency and allow themselves to get sidetracked easily. The spontaneity of that kind may be charming as much as it is irritating.

The individual could be on time if they wanted to be, but find something more interesting to occupy their day.

On the other hand, some people are late because they are so disorganized that timeliness is virtually impossible. There are many possible reasons for such lapses. It could be that their activities lack a plan so that their day consists of one random event after the last. Anyone can get sidetracked, whether it is a random call from a distant relative, a heated political debate, a video game, or a gripping sports event.

One of the most common reasons for tardiness is less than noble. The paper gets delayed, or the meeting is not attended, because the person couldn't be bothered.


Confronted with a deadline, some people go to work right away. Some wait until the impending limit is close enough to motivate action. Others reach for a magical escape phrase such as, “The heck with it!”

Then, the excuse factory gets busy. College students are famous for creative explanations for missing a paper deadline. My favorite was from a student in Minnesota who claimed that she had been “up all night chasing skunks with a shotgun.”

While that excuse won an extension, the real reason that such deadlines are missed is that students do not start on time. For many, the pressure of the deadline is a reason not to end the paper on time but to begin it.

Such procrastination is generally a bad idea, but it has a simple explanation. The student feels that the paper is going to be difficult. It is easier to postpone until tomorrow than to begin today. That works until the deadline when they run out of tomorrows.

More from Nigel Barber Ph.D.
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