Recently, a new study from the Harvard Business Review found that longer project deadlines trick employees into thinking a project is harder than it is. They also found that it can cause employees to procrastinate. Building on our understanding of Parkinson’s law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” suggesting that managers need to view deadlines more comprehensively.
First, Parkinson’s law suggests that longer deadlines lead people to set easier goals and decrease effort; this study realized longer deadlines increase an assignment’s perceived difficulty. Secondly, while Parkinson’s law makes a prediction only about time commitment, this study concludes that longer incidental deadlines increase monetary commitment. As a result, when an assignment includes a budget, it might be better to set a shorter deadline than a longer one.
Another study showed when faced with multiple deadlines for tasks that vary in importance, people regularly pursue less-important assignments with shorter deadlines than more-important assignments with longer deadlines. These studies showed us that people’s tendency to procrastinate on what is important to finish less-important urgent assignments reflects a basic psychological preference. Many of us know this intuitively; we constantly check and respond to emails rather than work on the revenue report or our team project.
These patterns are important for managers and others setting deadlines to recognize, in large part because our findings reveal ways to game the system: Short deadlines on urgent tasks elicit attention. Those tasked with the assignment are more likely to complete it, less likely to procrastinate on it, and less likely to spend superfluous money on it than if they were given the same task with a less-urgent deadline.
But sometimes a longer deadline is necessary if a task is inherently more complex or there are outside factors that are going to add time to the schedule. Can productivity still be wrangled? The results suggest yes.
When deadlines are distant, managers can shift people’s attention away from the deadline and toward the final outcomes of everyday tasks. Reminding employees of the final payoffs of different tasks is an effective way to do this.
So, if you are like the billions of people that struggle with procrastination and time management, we encourage you to read the full study from the Harvard Business Review here.