I need a sense of urgency.
December 15, 2009 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Like most people, I work much more efficiently when there is a looming deadline to focus my mind. Has anyone found a way to 'trick' their minds into thinking a deadline is more imminent than it is, to increase productivity?
posted by Kiwi to Work & Money (28 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'll create a tiny deadline and set a timer. Sometimes the deadline is only to work on one specific thing during the countdown. e.g., "write for ten minutes"

(oddly enough I was about to ask a similar question)
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 2:00 PM on December 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

Write a different deadline in your calendar. If you're busy enough, you'll think it's the real thing. I don't have many tricks for sticking to that false deadline if it's just in your calendar, except promising other people who are your boss or advisor that you'll have a piece or a draft or X done by that first deadline. Being accountable to your higher-ups might help.
posted by k8lin at 2:02 PM on December 15, 2009

I often tell the someone (colleague, teacher, etc) that I plan to finish my project on a certain day, early. (I don't usually tell this to my boss, lest I look bad if I DON'T turn it in early, but having a less-formal version of a real deadline, is helpful.) Then you can finish it early, and still have some time to touch it up before the real deadline.
posted by np312 at 2:03 PM on December 15, 2009

At the start of my day, I look at what I need to do and I try to decide how much I would get done in an average day. Then I add a little bit to it to make it a stretch goal. If I make the stretch goal, I indulge in a reward of some kind once I get home. Nothing too big, expensive, fattening, etc, but enough to make me want to keep going hard so I can get the goal.

As long as you have the self-restraint to not just get your reward no matter what, it works well.
posted by sah at 2:05 PM on December 15, 2009

I have no tricks per se, but I invite you to become aware of something I learned in culinary school and I have never seen disproved...


Once I started paying attention to this fact, I became more punctual, generally.
posted by jbenben at 2:06 PM on December 15, 2009 [12 favorites]


For certain people (like me) and for certain tasks, amend to: EVERY TASK WILL TAKE FAR BEYOND THE TIME ALLOTTED. My best tool for combating that tendency is to make sure as many people as possible know about my deadline, especially my friends and other people I'm likely to waste time with as the deadline looms. My good friends know to say "Hey, maybe we should get together on Friday instead of tonight, since your deadline is two days from now."

(Man, I have good friends.)
posted by ocherdraco at 2:11 PM on December 15, 2009

What jbenben said. Also, "Perfection is the enemy of good enough." Which cuts both ways.

Another maxim I have heard is "Some tasks will take 90 percent of the time to get to 50 percent done. Others will take 50 percent of the time to get to 90 percent done." I try to divide tasks into which of those two categories I think they'll be right at the start, so I know what I need to focus on. The latter can be slacked off on in favor the former.
posted by Etrigan at 2:15 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Set lots of smaller deadlines. Keep in mind that you ALWAYS want a considerable buffer between "finished" and "due", so set your finished-deadline well before your due-deadline, and think of the space in between as a "comfort zone". In my mind, I have these early deadlines, under which I am stressed and working hard, because I went to get to that comfortable spot where I can check over what I have done and be sure that is good. Like finishing an exam with a half hour to double check your answers.
posted by molecicco at 2:19 PM on December 15, 2009

I sometimes do kingfisher, his musclebound cat's suggestion, but specifically just before I have to go and do something else like meet someone. I'll rush out five minutes of work before I leave, and then the seal is broken so to speak.
posted by lucidium at 2:21 PM on December 15, 2009

Many years ago I was sent to a Franklin Covey planner class. A lot of it was blah, blah, blah, but the part that I liked and stuck with was starting each day planning out what needs to be done (and can reasonably be done that day) and setting the priority. So instead of a big deadline in the future, I have daily deadlines that are comprised of different tasks and I'm focused on them right from the get-go. It also helps me with procrastination because if I'm ever sitting around wondering what to do next, I just look a my task list for the day. There's also something to be said for the joy of checking off finished things, even if they are small.
posted by Kimberly at 2:27 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Self bribery. I have to do X in order to do Y, the thing I really want to do.

Or just don't pee until you get it done, if you enjoy working with stress.

That's less bribery than blackmail, though.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:27 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I bribe myself. For example, I have to do research for promotion and tenure. So I make a deal with myself and say, this article or project will be fully researched and ready to submit by (six months from now date) or I will have to put nn$ in an untouchable CD or savings account. And then I set up the automatic transfer to occur on that date, and if I finish on time, I get to keep the money and cancel the transfer. If I don't, I owe myself money.

It's worked so far. Of course, now I have to figure out a way to bribe myself to save money.
posted by teleri025 at 2:41 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

For all of my homework assignments I use a simple task manager. Everyday, I write what I need to do, and once I'm done I check it off! It's really satisfying to have all the boxes checked at the end of the day.
posted by kylej at 2:48 PM on December 15, 2009

YES! I have full-proof solution for you. I find a friend who is willing to take my money. This step is key. You need to find someone who understands that they are helping you by taking your money. Then I tell them, "I will finish X by 4:00 today. Failure to do so means I owe you $20." You have just created a real deadline, no trickery to it. It works.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 2:59 PM on December 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

It might be worth considering why you procrastinate in the first place. I think a big reason I wait till the last minute to do things is it gives me the chance to say "Ya, it could have been better if I had more time". It makes dealing with potential failure easier. I've been trying to rid myself of this mindset lately.
posted by backwards guitar at 3:04 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Echoing those who have said to break the project down into smaller tasks. Then you just set deadlines for each step that will keep you on track for the final due date - the bonus is that the smaller tasks are much less daunting to begin, so you are (or should be, at least) less likely to try to put them off.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 3:18 PM on December 15, 2009

-2nd-ing the suggestion to record the deadline as being a day or two earlier in a planner/calendar/whiteboard/your-head, or wherever you'd normally keep track of tasks with deadlines. But don't this for every deadline, just some deadlines.

-For deadlines that are (or can be) specified or imposed by another person, ask the person to sometimes tell you false-but-earlier deadlines in general. (Assuming you have the kind of relationship with the person where this kind of a request wouldn't be detrimental for whatever reasons.)

-This one is good only for small scale tasks: set a clock forward by an unknown-to-you amount of time. (Ask a friend to do it, or don't pay attention while you re-set the clock.) This would ideally be the clock that you look at when you're working on the tasks with the deadlines. Make a point not to actively compare the time on this clock to the time on other clocks that you know are accurate. [This also works surprisingly well with bedside/alarm clocks, in terms of waking up on time. If you don't know how off the clock is, you can't afford to chance it by hitting snooze (too much).]

Right, so generally, creating uncertainty as to which deadlines are accurate, and how accurate they are, is the key. If you shift all of your deadlines forward by some amount, then you'll know that any given deadline isn't actually at x PM or on x date, so you're going to have a hard time going along with it and "tricking" yourself. If all you know is that the deadline *might* be later than when you think it is, you really have no choice but to assume any specified deadline is accurate.

If this works, it won't make you finish everything earlier (given that some of your deadlines will be accurate or nearly accurate), but at least it'll make you finish some things earlier, and prevent missed deadlines.
posted by sentient at 3:38 PM on December 15, 2009

I use a stopwatch app on my desktop when I'm writing.

I start it, and start writing, even if I feel like i don't have anything good in mind. When it gets to ten minutes I stop. I take a ten-minute break and start again.

This does a few things;
1) There's nothing like seeing the clock literally moving right in front of your eyes to create a sense of urgency. There's no time to second-guess yourself or procrastinate.

2) During the break periods you can do whatever you want, except work. If you're like me, and constantly beating yourself up: "why am I not writing RIGHT NOW??" then having enforced break periods when you're not SUPPOSED to be doing anything is a wonderfully relaxing way to recharge your batteries.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:21 PM on December 15, 2009

Longer term, the best way is to have smaller "deliverables." If you were writing, say, a hundred page paper, promise someone you will send them 10 pages per day. A friend, your mom, whoever. As long as they will hold you accountable if you fail.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:23 PM on December 15, 2009

When I find myself procrastinating or spending too much time on the minutia of a project, I remind myself that life is fleeting. I can either concentrate, get the task done, and move on to other things or look back on a life full of minesweeper and television.
posted by defreckled at 4:50 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Make a plan that would be expensive/inconvenient to cancel, for the night of your new (earlier) deadline. Tickets to a show, dinner reservations where others will join you, etc. The event becomes a reward for finishing, plus impetus to finish, lest you have to cancel the plans and inconvenience everyone.
posted by xo at 6:12 PM on December 15, 2009

Best answer: Critical chain project management (google-able.)

Basically, you estimate the time it will take to do it --- NOT the time you're 100% or 90% sure you'll be able to do it in, the 50/50 time. You might make it, you might not. Then, you add 50% of that to the end as a buffer. Schedule your task so that the end of the buffer is on the deadline. Start the task at the time that makes the start.

DO NOT START EARLY. Psychologically, it will take the whole extra time, plus the allotted time, plus run over if you start early. If you start when scheduled, and you know that it's a pretty aggressive estimate, you will work harder.

There are more tricks if you chain tasks together and you want to estimate total project time.

You can pretty accurately track exactly how you're doing by dividing (task % done) by (% of the buffer used). If that number goes less than one, you can see that you're in trouble and get hot while there is still time.

Management self-help woo-woo maybe, but in my experience, it works. (works for budget, too)
posted by ctmf at 7:06 PM on December 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

In college, if I had an essay due on Friday, I would schedule in advance a Thursday meeting with an adviser to go over my finished essay and get some feedback.

If I didn't have the essay done by Thursday, I would suffer embarrassment in my adviser's eyes, and would lose the chance to get valuable feedback. This was usually enough to get me to finish it by then.

A few times I slipped on the Thursday deadline. However, I always made the Friday deadline.
posted by lunchbox at 7:35 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers everyone; I've marked as 'best' those which look promising for someone who is working from home (which is my situation at the moment).
posted by Kiwi at 1:41 AM on December 16, 2009

posted by timory at 12:41 PM on December 16, 2009

The Pomodoro System is a pretty good method to create artificial deadlines. Essentially, it's a 25 minutes of work/5 minutes of break system (obviously highly modifiable) that uses a simple kitchen timer (or an equivalent computer application) to motivate you into bursts of productivity. I tried it while writing term papers this semester and found it to be fairly effective.
posted by devnall at 1:07 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a stack of index cards on my desk and in the mornings I write down the things I want to accomplish that day (action items in a GTD sense). So, in effect they're deadlines for the day.

I'm remarkably more productive when I do this than when I don 't.

Sometimes I'll have a list that's seems really ambitious, but I'll be done with it by lunchtime. That's a good feeling.
posted by qsysopr at 4:53 PM on December 16, 2009

kingjoeshmoe: Then I tell them, "I will finish X by 4:00 today. Failure to do so means I owe you $20."

You need to give them the money first, and stipulate that they can only give it back to you if you finish by your self-imposed deadline.
posted by AceRock at 8:14 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

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