Short on time? For the key points on setting deadlines, stick to the bold text and the conclusion.

Deadlines are an undeniable part of our lives. Often, they are imposed on us. That doesn’t mean you can’t create your own deadlines. Whether you’re a university student, investment banker or freelancer, knowing how to set realistic deadlines is an important skill.

Take in mind that people often underestimate the time it takes to complete something. From decades of experience at his successful asset management company, Bridgewater Associates, founder Ray Dalio has learned that projects take about 1,5 times the expected duration.

Read on to discover why. Along the way, you will also learn how to set deadlines for yourself.

Three tips for setting better deadlines:

Set several deadlines or milestones

One big deadline at some distant point in the future leads to procrastination. This means that you probably won’t do anything until you need to smash three double espressos and a Red Bull to finish on time, that is.

To avoid procrastination, space out your deadlines over time. By creating milestones to focus on one step at a time, you’ll benefit from a sense of progression and a boost in motivation.

When you get closer to your goals, your motivation is likely to increase. I am sure you’ve experienced this yourself. Looming deadlines release adrenaline, which increases focus and might induce a state of flow. However, this motivation depends on a few factors, such as the reward, difficulty and likelihood of success. [1]

If you’ve waited too long, the difficulty is high and the likelihood of success low. Hence, your motivation will also be low; you’ll be completely overwhelmed and clueless as to where to start. By splitting important deadlines into smaller milestones,  however, you can prevent this from happening. Moreover, your realistic milestones will always be closer, thus releasing adrenaline more often. Double win.

Break future deadlines into milestones to avoid overwhelm and enjoy a greater sense of progression.

Why set deadlines?

Setting your own deadlines adds a feeling of control over your work. And let’s be honest, it feels good to be your own boss. It helps to reduce stress, increase focus and boost motivation. All of these benefits will ultimately lead to better performances and higher productivity. 

Your performance also increases thanks to physiological or mental arousal. That can be created by deadlines, for example. Unfortunately, when the stress level becomes too high, your performance decreases. This is known as “the Yerkes-Dodson law”.

Learn more about this law and the benefits of setting deadlines

Keep your deadlines within sight

I’ll expand on the theory of the previous tip here. Deadlines need to be within sight to be effective. What’s too far ahead, doesn’t motivate us.

Motivation to complete deadlines and goals largely depends on necessity. An important part of necessity is the time distance to your goal. Studies have found that the further away you are from the deadline, the lower the necessity seems to be. [1]

Our brain is incredible, yet sometimes a bit stupid. Several studies suggest that we value small rewards in the near future over bigger rewards in the distant future. [1] This is called the urgency effect.

And then there’s Parkinson’s Law, which states that we’ll add work in order to fill the given time to complete an assignment. For example, if you have an 8-hour workday but only need to complete a few short assignments, you’re likely to waste time on socials and other unnecessary activities to fill your day. 

If this happens often, ask your boss for extra work or suggest working from home once in a while. This shouldn’t be too much to ask after having been forced to do it for a few months. 

To be more productive and shorten work time, limit tasks to the most important ones.

If you struggle to get to the point, shorten work time. A limited time forces you to focus on the most important task.

To become successful at setting deadlines, keep them within sight. The next Thursday is often a good guideline for weekly projects. If something unexpected pops up, you’ll still have the buffer of Friday to avoid work over the weekend. Of course, no one will hold you back if you want to work weekends, but I prefer to relax and spend time with friends and family.

Use weekly milestones to stay on track and boost motivation.

Know yourself and plan accordingly

People tend to have an optimistic bias about their abilities. You’re no different. Research has shown that many people don’t even respect deadlines they’ve set for themselves![2]

This is because we only consider singular information and not distributional data when making deadline decisions.[3] Singular information is based on what you know about yourself. Distributional data is based on past experiences and similar activities that both you and others have completed.

While completion times of similar projects are a better standard than your prediction, you are far more likely to base your deadline on your own prior expectancies. Accept that you don’t know better! You’re probably not considering everything that could possibly go wrong. (Your dog might eat your project — remember that one?). This faulty thinking is called the planning fallacy

So, while you need to keep your deadlines within sight, you also need to allow yourself some space for flexibility. When you are working for a client or boss, think about the following rule. It’s better to set slightly longer deadlines and hand in early than to set short deadlines and hand in late. Underpromise and overdeliver rather than overpromise and underdeliver.

Look at this example. If you estimate that completing a report will take 3 days, say it will be ready in 4. If you finish it in 3 days, you’re a stellar employee! However, if you say it’ll be ready in 2 days and it takes you 3, you’re late and irresponsible. Even though you did it within the same amount of time, you will be perceived differently.

Consider the expectations you set with your deadlines.

Set realistic deadlines considering that it will take longer than you expect.

Bonus: inform others to involve your sense of accountability

If you work for a boss, skip this. Getting fired or missing a bonus should be enough of a motivation to involve your sense of accountability.

However, as a freelancer or when setting personal deadlines, accountability is often lacking. When there’s no one to hold you accountable, you need extraordinary discipline.

To solve this, get friends or family involved. Tell them about your plans and deadlines, and make sure they don’t go too easy on you. And good friends won’t because they care about your success. 

Getting someone else involved will give you an extra motivation boost to complete your deadlines on time. By failing, you’re not just breaking a promise to yourself, but also one you made to a friend. 

Time to set some deadlines

The balance for setting deadlines is often difficult to find. Too far ahead, and you’ll procrastinate. Cut it too close, and your overwhelm will lead to stress and failure.

Know thyself.

To set deadlines, give yourself about 50% more time than you think you need. Add milestones, or ‘mini-deadlines’, for long-term projects to increase your success rate. Create at least one milestone per week to get a good feel of your progress.

Good luck.

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Original photo by Mille Sanders on Unsplash.

Sources and further reading about setting deadlines:

  1. Liberman, Nira & Förster, Jens. Guildford Journals —
  1. Kahneman, Daniel & Tversky, Amos. DARPA — 
  2. Buehler, Roger; Griffin, Dale & Ross, Michael. The American Psychological Association —,_1994.pdf