On the Ball with Deadlines: Understand the psychology behind it

November 2, 2020 4:55 PM

Te stress imposed by an external deadline can motivate you to perform more optimally as you get charged up before the due date.

Another important facet of meeting deadlines is learning not to overcommit.

By Aruna Sankaranarayanan

As you stare at your calendar, looming deadlines blink at you. Two client proposals, five appraisals, and a market research survey—with back-to-back due dates, you feel your pulse throb. And, soon after, you promise your kid that you will build the mega-Lego fortress together while you also want to complete the baby quilt to gift your niece on her first birthday. Given that deadlines are an endemic part of our harried lives, understanding the psychology behind them may help us wield them in more productive ways.

Social psychologist, Daniel Frings, argues that deadlines that we inflict on ourselves diminish dawdling and dithering, whereas externally enforced time-limits can be stressful and even erode intrinsic motivation. Whenever possible, set your own due dates. However, for non-negotiable deadlines, like exams and work projects, what can you do to reduce their sting?

Writer and neuroscientist, Dean Burnett, evokes the Yerkes-Dodson law to explain how deadlines both help and harm us. According to this well-known psychological principle, a person’s performance increases with arousal, but only up to a point, after which it deteriorates. So, the stress imposed by an external deadline can motivate you to perform more optimally as you get charged up before the due date. But if your stress level crosses a certain threshold, your performance will plummet.

To circumvent this problem, author and counsellor, Kimberley Key, suggests that you approach deadlines differently. Instead of depending on the deadline set for you, create your own due date with sufficient leeway so that your adrenaline doesn’t skyrocket to toxic levels, thereby jeopardizing your performance, in the eleventh hour. When you push things to the last minute, you are likely to depend on unhealthy doses of caffeine to get you through the crunch. Subjecting your body to chronic stress, compounded by caffeine shots, will take a toll on your health. So, as far as possible, plan to complete your tasks before the dreaded deadline.

This strategy can also help you circumvent the planning fallacy, first proposed by Nobel laureates Danial Kahneman and Amor Tversky, wherein people regularly underestimate the amount of time it would take for them to complete any task. Given that Kahneman and Tversky themselves were victims of this panhuman tendency, don’t berate yourself in hindsight. Instead, when you have a deadline to meet, remember this human frailty. Regardless of your conviction of completing a task within a specified duration, buffer in adequate cushion time.

Key also exhorts you to watch out for perfectionism, where you obsess over minute details even as the deadline approaches, thereby amplifying your stress while blinding you to your larger goals. She argues that perfectionism stems from a fear of not measuring up. So, it’s important that you tackle your fear of not being good enough. She suggests writing down your worries to get a better handle on them.

Another important facet of meeting deadlines is learning not to overcommit. No matter how organised or disciplined you are, everyone has a threshold regarding the amount they can take on. Remember that the onus you can bear varies with time and circumstance. If you are going through a stressful patch on the personal front, don’t expect to stretch yourself professionally as well. Knowing when to cut back is as essential as leaning in when times are good.

As you start meeting deadlines regularly, not only will you fortify your reputation, but also reassure yourself of your efficiency, capability and professionalism.

(The author is an avid blogger. Her forthcoming book, Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know is set to be released in 2020.)

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