Why Deadlines Are Good Things

“I can only work under a deadline.”

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

It’s actually a good thing. A deadline implies a goal, or a purpose. Purpose-driven activity is the only kind that can sustain itself.

A deadline also implies an objective benchmark. It’s kind of like having a GPS in your car, or a compass on the ships of olden times. It doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do, but it tells you where you are in relation to some concrete, verifiable standard. It helps you assess whether you’re in contact with reality in what you expect of yourself, or way off base.

Despite all these good things about deadlines, people — in my experience — usually see them as an irritating or unjustifiably stressful thing. They’ll ask a psychotherapist like me, “How can I find an alternative to working under pressure?” By “pressure” they usually mean “deadlines.”

The real issue here arises when people have to set their own deadlines. When it’s no longer a school teacher, a college professor, a parent or a boss setting a deadline for you, then some people start to feel like a fish out of water. They become anxious, or even panic.

When they experience the high anxiety, they look to the lack of a deadline and incorrectly conclude, “I don’t have anyone to set a deadline for me. I have to do it myself. If I were independent, I wouldn’t need a deadline.”

I have been self-employed and self-motivating for years. People have asked me how I have written several books and write 1-2 columns every single day, plus maintain a private practice. I know that I could not do so without deadlines — objective measures — as part of the process.

For example, I have a column called the “Daily Dose of Reason.” You’re reading it right now. “Daily” refers to a deadline. I require myself to have an article posted every day. If I wrote a column simply called “The Dose of Reason,” and posted only when I felt like it, I would not produce nearly as much. Having the expectation — required of myself, by myself — is what makes it happen.

This is the key. Sometimes deadlines will be externally imposed. There’s nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. Perhaps the deadlines are imposed by the nature of reality. You have to take time to eat or sleep, at some point, if you’re to keep thriving and functioning. You have to get your work done in the yard if rain is coming.

Perhaps the deadlines are imposed by others, others with whom you chose to associate. Maybe you have a business partner, or a boss, because that particular activity, at least at this juncture of your life, is more advantageous to you than not — so you accept those deadlines as part of the package of the wider goal or purpose you’re endeavoring to accomplish. Any college or graduate student is well acquainted with deadlines relating to mid-terms, term papers, final exams, and the like.

Deadlines help us prosper and grow. They’re objective measurements which help us ascertain our progress, or lack thereof, in some willingly chosen or biologically required enterprise.


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