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Could This Be a Way To Beat Procrastination in 2022?

Dropping the deadlines could be a way to get more done.

Key points

  • A new study from Otago Business School indicated people get things done quicker when they don't have a deadline.
  • People with a lot of time to finish a task usually don't.
  • Often we procrastinate not because we don’t care, but because we lack the confidence to do the job.
Kevin Ku/Unsplash
Source: Kevin Ku/Unsplash

Here’s something that I’ve learned about my teenage daughter: When I ask her to do something by 2 p.m.–or ascribe another narrow deadline to the task–the chances she’ll get the job done increase significantly.

When I give her a longer-term project, like asking her to please clean out the bathroom drawer by the end of the month, or even the end of the week, it’s usually a non-starter. Rarely gets done.

I have a similar tendency. I am very good with immediate or short deadlines. I may feel frantic, but I get the job done. But if you give me six months, I fret and have a hard time making meaningful progress until the deadline gets a whole lot closer.

According to research, many of us operate this way.

According to research from the Otago Business School, Department of Economics, the length of time you have to complete a task impacts whether you procrastinate or get it done quickly.

Professor Stephen Knowles and his team were curious about approaches that would help charities raise money more effectively.

So, they devised a study and invited participants to complete an online survey. When the participants finished the survey, a donation was given to charity. One group of those surveyed was given one week to complete the task. Another had a month. The third, no deadline at all to finish the survey.

Which group do you think raised the most money?

Deadline? Forget About It.

It wasn’t the folks who had the most time to answer the questions. The group with a month had the lowest response.

The group with the one-week deadline resulted in many responses. But it was the group with no deadline at all that out-performed everyone else.

It seems counterintuitive, but if you want others to help out or get something done, it's best not to set a deadline.

A one-month deadline removes the “urgency to act,” Knowles said. This might cause people to procrastinate, forget about the task altogether, or perceive the task as non-urgent, and therefore unnecessary.

Procrastination occurs when you delay something that you believe would be better to start on, says Piers Steel, an expert on the behavior.

Procrastinators—about a quarter of us—know the value of a task, like taking a survey to raise money for charity, but don’t get started on it, not because we don’t care but because we lack the confidence and motivation.

A task we perceive as difficult might also prompt us to procrastinate because we aren’t sure we can perform the job.

If you are averse to the task–i.e., folding the laundry, writing the technical report–distractible, or not feeling motivated, well then you are more likely to put it off, Steel said.

So, it stands to reason that if you have no deadline pressing down, you probably won’t get the job done. Right? Not necessarily.

Inspired to Action

Knowles’ study showed another side. Based on the results, Knowles speculated that when no deadline is specified, people tend to assume there is a deadline anyway and jump on the task sooner.

That got me wondering. It’s true that when something just comes up in my day without clear deadlines, I tend to tackle it faster “before I forget.” I sense that if they reached out and didn’t specify a timeline, they must need immediate feedback.

Interesting. I tested the theory around the house too. Today I asked our teen daughter to fold the laundry. She is a natural avoider (understandably) when it comes to these kinds of chores, and almost always, I wind up talking, nagging, begging, threatening, and putting a strict deadline in place.

This time I did none of this.

I was sweeping the floor. She was texting friends, and I said, “Hey, would you please fold the laundry?”

Then I went back to work. When I came out an hour later, I found a pile of clean clothes folded neatly on my dresser.

Maybe it was a one-off, but I’ll take it, and you know I’ll be trying this again.

Adapting My To-Do List

I’ve even started looking at my to-do list in a new way. I recently tackled the essentials first, completing those assignments with imminent deadlines. But, rather than imposing a long list of deadlines on the other tasks, I wrote out other things I wanted to accomplish and left the due-dates open-ended.

And you know? I moved through many of them–even those that had been on the list for a while–faster and without the same degree of self-criticism that often accompanies procrastination.

I felt less pressure because I knew they didn't have to be done right then, and I filled in shorter gaps in my day with many of those projects I had put off. By the end, I felt relieved to have them done. That created some momentum going into the next day.

In subtle ways, I feel like this no-deadline to-do list has helped me make incremental progress, and those small wins, as defined by Teresa Amabile, have piqued my motivation and left me feeling less overwhelmed.

Not listing out a series of must-dos and deadlines with our daughter, felt better too. Less pressure, less nagging, less tension in our relationship. There was a certain amount of implied trust that she would do the job, and mostly, she did.

Earlier today, I asked her to unload the dishwasher, a two-minute task that usually takes her hours to start. I didn't give her a deadline.

And, as I sit here writing this, I hear dishing clinking in the kitchen.