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Here's What Really Happens When You Extend a Deadline

Why we don't make good use of extra time, and how we can.

Key points

  • Without a deadline, procrastinators often don't work.
  • Extending a deadline makes it less likely to dominate one's thinking and attention.
  • Imposing interim deadlines is an effective way to reach a larger goal.

In June, the Obama administration pushed back the deadline for employers with 50 or more workers to provide health insurance for their employees by a full year—until Jan 1, 2015. Admittedly, the implementation of anything as complex as the Affordable Care Act is going to take time, and those involved have been working furiously to try to meet the government’s deadlines. So, at least with respect to this particular part of the ACA, everyone has an additional year to get everything just right. Sounds like a good thing, doesn't it?

Only—how furiously do you think everyone with this new, extended deadline is working now? Are they still burning the midnight oil… or are they saying to themselves, "Let's take a breather. We’ve got plenty of time."

What happens when we move back deadlines—once we get past the initial feeling of sweet relief? Research suggests we have a lot of difficulties using our newly found time wisely. We wind up facing the same problem again—the same time pressure, the same stress, the same feeling-not-quite ready—only now we’ve gone an additional week, month, or year without reaching an important goal.

So why do we squander the time extensions we are given, and what can we do about it? The answer to the latter requires an understanding of the former, so let’s start there.

Problem #1: We lose motivation

It was first observed by researchers in the early part of the last century that one’s motivation to reach a goal increases as one’s distance from the goal decreases. Whether you are a salesperson trying to reach a sales target, or a rat running down a tunnel to get a piece of cheese, the closer you get to success, the more intensely you pursue it. Psychologists call this largely unconscious mechanism the “Goal Looms Larger Effect,” meaning that the nearer you are to the finish line, the larger the goal “looms” in your mind—the more it dominates your thinking and benefits from your attention.

Whenever you push back a deadline, you are increasing the distance once again between you and the finish line. Now, more urgent goals will loom large, and your original goal will languish in the back of your mind.

Problem #2: We procrastinate

In 2012, the IRS received over 10 million tax extension forms—a number that increases every year. Also increasing, according to Turbo Tax, is the number of people who wait until the last two weeks of tax season to file. What do we have to thank for these trends? E-filing. That’s right—now that it is quicker and easier to file our taxes, or file for an extension, we are waiting even longer to do so. E-filing takes the pressure off, so it’s easier for those with a tendency to procrastinate to delay.

"But that’s ok because I work better under pressure," says the procrastinator. Well, I’m here to tell you that you don’t. No one does. Psychologically, saying your work is better under pressure makes zero sense, because “pressure” is just another way of saying “just barely sufficient time to complete whatever I’m doing.” How can less time help you do a better job? This is like claiming that you are more rested when you give yourself fewer hours to sleep.

It’s really far more accurate to say that if you are a procrastinator, you work because there is pressure. Without pressure, you don’t work. This is why pushing back a deadline is absolutely terrible for procrastinators. (Though naturally, they are usually the ones asking for extensions in the first place.)

Problem #3: We are terrible judges of how long things take

Psychologists call this the planning fallacy—a pervasive tendency to underestimate how long it will take to do just about anything—and it can be attributed to several different biases. First, we routinely fail to consider our own past experiences while planning. As any professor can tell you, most college seniors, after 4 straight years of paper-writing, still can't seem to figure out how long it will take them to write a 10-page paper.

Second, we ignore the very real possibility that things won't go as planned—our future plans tend to be "best-case scenarios." And as a consequence, we budget only enough time to complete the project if everything goes smoothly. Which it never really does.

Lastly, we don't think about all the steps or subcomponents that make up the task and consider how long each part of the task will take. When you think about painting a room, you may picture yourself using a roller to quickly slap the paint on the walls, and think that it won't take much time at all—neglecting to consider how you'll first have to move or cover the furniture, tape all the fixtures and window frames, do all the edging by hand, and so on.

If you push back a deadline without addressing the poor time planning that landed you in hot water in the first place, you will likely end up in hot water again down the road.

How to make good use of an extended deadline

If we want to solve problems 1 and 2—keeping motivation high and keeping the pressure on procrastinators—we need to find ways to shorten the distance between where we are now and where we want to end up. The most effective solution is to impose interim deadlines, effectively breaking a larger goal up into discrete sub-goals spaced out strategically in time. These deadlines need to be meaningful as well—if it’s no big deal to miss the deadline, then it’s not a real deadline.

Research by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch suggests that many of us understand this implicitly. In one of their studies, students had to turn in three papers by the semester’s end. Only 27% of them chose to submit all three on the last day—the majority established earlier deadlines for one or more of the papers voluntarily. In fact, roughly half the students chose to impose deadlines optimally, evenly spacing them throughout the semester. Those that did turned in superior work and received higher grades. (So much for working best under pressure, eh?)

To solve Problem #3, you need to be very deliberate when it comes to project planning. Specifically, you need to make sure you explicitly:

  • Consider how long it has taken to complete a similar project in the past
  • Try to identify the ways in which things might not go as planned
  • Break the project down, spelling out all the steps you will need to take to get it done and estimating the time necessary to complete each step

If it’s not possible to set interim deadlines or make sure actions are taken to avoid the planning fallacy, then you really should try to avoid pushing back your deadline altogether. The odds are good that you’ll have little to show for it but wasted time.

More from Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.
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