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The Dark Side of Deadlines

Chronic deadlines can create havoc on your health.


Motivated by them?

Think you work better when you have them?

Take another look at the word.



Seriously want to cite a word that leads with “dead” as the source of all your creative inspiration? I know, I know, I do and have done the same thing. I can empathize. That’s why I want to share the startling reality of what deadlines actually do to our brain, our health, and even our work product. Don’t worry, I’m going to provide some practical solutions as well.

The problem with deadlines: less creativity, more stress

The challenge is that in our fast-paced, internet-speed (faster than microwave-speed) culture, we have become deadline-oriented and the costs are truly alarming. Not only does putting off a task until its deadline create stress, researchers found it also kills brain cells, lessens creativity, and that the associated stress can have a debilitating effect on one’s health. Worse, it sets up a vicious feedback loop and keeps a person dependent on deadlines like a caffeine junkie reaching for their morning cup of joe (she writes as she sips her hot mug of potent French roast coffee).

Let’s take a closer look at the impact deadline stress has on the brain. I would like to add that procrastinating to meet a deadline worsens this effect and sets up an additional cycle that causes so much stress that one avoids it until they have to complete it. That’s where deadline is apropos as the person needs to feel it’s a life or death situation in order to get motivated (death of a career, relationship, financial security, etc.).

When the body feels the threat to its survival, it runs to the rescue by pumping the body’s natural caffeine source—cortisol and all the other adrenal chemicals that act as the body’s turbocharge button. Add caffeine to that and your body is equipped to step up with Herculean strength. Or so it feels, much like when David Banner lifted the car after an accident to save his wife. He then tried to duplicate the results in a laboratory, yet created the Hulk instead (remember how the Hulk was actually quite dumb?).

The same transformation happens to our brains when we thrive on deadlines. Our amygdala grows and our frontal lobe shrinks. Basically, we become like the Hulk. Our emotions are heightened and we run on stress hormones to meet our deadline. We can ignore anything that stands in the way and feel so good once we meet the deadline that we need the same kind of pick-me-up the next time.

Yet, there’s a cumulative effect and the adrenals can only take so much. After a while, the brilliant executive functioning in the frontal lobe that forms rational thought and logical reasoning doesn’t kick in as well. Alternative creative solutions are not an option. Only one way presents itself in order to get the task done. Rigidity sets in. The final work product, while done — if done, is flat. Something’s missing but it’s too late because you’re already onto the next deadline. (Perhaps this is part of why entrenched organizations respond to new ideas with, “We don’t do things that way around here.”)

Brain changes impact the body as well. Digestion issues are one of the first symptoms that stress hormones are taking over. Headaches too. There is a ton of research on the impact of cortisol and its role in diabetes. In the body’s quest to keep the turbo fuel plentiful, it craves sugars and simple carbohydrates. Did I mention caffeine? In severe cases, the person begins attempts at regulating the vicious cycle via alcohol to calm down (while a depressant, alcohol is also a stimulant) and/or other stimulants (there is a growing epidemic of Adderall and other similar prescription drugs being sold on school campuses from middle schools to colleges — and yes, this very stress cycle can look a lot like attention deficit disorder).

Now that you’re getting a glimpse into some of the consequences of deadline stress, what are the solutions?

Better ways to work with deadlines

First, begin by getting your diet and nutrition in line. Really try not to live on caffeine, sugar, and simple carbs. If there is a substance dependence issue, please get help right away. There are also 12-step support groups that are abundant in every city and almost every town (along with internet meetings if you’re rural and can’t find one). Take a good multivitamin and make sure you supplement with essential omega fatty acids (they can reverse some damage and prevent further problems). Hydrate with lots of water.

Second, take steps to change the way you approach deadlines. Remember the old adage that the early worm gets the worm? Try setting earlier task completion times and then reward yourself for meeting those times. Eventually, get to where you are ahead of the tide instead of coming right up to the deadline. Slowly, this switch will actually help you shift from amygdala-driven dependence to frontal lobe performance. Stress will lessen and work products will be more creative and innovative.

Third, get in touch with the more meaningful side of life. Call it the Universe, God, Higher Power, the Divine Cosmos—whatever that mystery ethereal aspect to life that gives meaning. Take a moment several times in your day where you take four deep cleansing breaths (inhaling to count of four and exhaling to count of four). Begin noticing the magic of the moment where you look out the window and catch a cloud that looks like your first puppy. Or you hear the birds sing at just the right time when you were wondering if anyone was listening. Stop and smell the roses and walk barefoot in the grass.

These things, while simple (and often neglected), form the Spiritual side of life and have a way of trumping the whole brain functioning process. Studies on prayer and the “Divine” have revealed amazing health benefits such as decreased blood pressure, lowered stress, and increased immune functioning—along with miraculous recovery from lethal illness. There’s also a lot of documentation on enhanced creativity from Spiritually-cited inspiration.

Fourth, avoid perfectionism. No one is perfect and perfectionism has a way of ramping up the stress more than anything. Underlying perfectionism is fear. Fear of not measuring somehow. You can journal to try identifying the fears. Usually, each person has a few consistent themes that stealthily run the show. Bring them to the light of day and then let them go. Take each assignment as a growing experience and see what you can learn from the process. Enjoy and have fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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