Deadlines are Dead

Deadlines are Dead

Remember being young and idealistic and thinking deadlines were stupid? Somehow, I’ve come back around to that position. Sure, there are times when deadlines are necessary or simply unavoidable. The pace of the world needs to keep moving forward and sometimes there’s just not an unlimited amount of time to otherwise accomplish tasks we’d rather not do. Paying taxes comes to mind as I write this on April 12th in the United States… just three days before the IRS deadline.

This week, I’m giving a presentation to students about time management. Specifically, I’m presenting on how creative people who want plenty of time for more lofty and artistic projects can use time management techniques to not feel like they’re getting lost or assimilated into the corporate or academic worlds. These are the very same students that I “inflict” with weekly deadlines. But, it’s not these types of deadlines that are dead. Rather, they’re the deadlines that are just emerging as milestones.

Nothing has made me realize that milestones are the new (and better) deadlines than my recent work expanding internationally as a voice over corporate trainer (and content creator, and video producer, etc.) for a couple of multi-national technology companies. In many of these projects, we set arbitrary deadlines just to keep things on track and that somehow makes the delivery time longer. It annoys them, frustrates me… and the truth is things would run faster without the deadlines.

As Agile continues to take over the world as the business practice of choice for this decade, and Scrum convinces us that working in short sprints is the way to go, there’s no real reason to kill off deadlines completely, but they should be treated as what they are: one data point to meet. One particular moment in time in which you hope, expect, or agree to be finished with something… but hope is often the most applicable word. In the grand scheme of things, the simple whim to be done by a particular date means nothing. Without milestones tracking a clearly rationalized and thought-out workflow, deadlines are dead. Read: it’s mapping and adhering to process that’s important, not a completion date set in a vacuum.

As much as we like to pretend that meeting deadlines is an act of professionalism, most of the time we’re just inflicting ourselves with additional stress out of obligation. Unless something is routine or utterly mission-critical, a deadline doesn’t truly make sense. What makes sense is very clearly understanding a process you’d like to take, being open to change and new routes along the way, and setting milestones (or frequent pause points) to continually reevaluate along the journey. Does this mean I’ll remove deadlines from my class? No, but they’ll certainly be repurposed into milestones with extremely clear targets rather than a deadline with the expectation of perfect completion.

So maybe I’m suggesting you set a deadline to do away with all but your most pressing (and well justified) deadlines. For everything else, a road map with clearly defined work intervals tied to targets is probably more important. For those of you saying, “But that’s a deadline!” you may have missed the point entirely so I’ll conclude with this: a deadline isn’t even a deadline if it doesn’t have a clear reason for existing and an identified method for acquisition.