Why You Can’t Trick Yourself with Fake Deadlines

A piece of productivity advice that has served me well is that you should never set artificial deadlines.

Real deadlines, on the other hand, are a wonderful tool. By real deadlines I mean ones that are external and for which there are genuine consequences if you do not meet them. Many book authors have said that the real value in a traditional publisher is that they hold you to a deadline, and by it they ensure your book actually gets done.

Deadlines add necessary urgency to important tasks so that we have the motivation to complete them. Deadlines work so well, in fact, we often try to create deadlines for ourselves to help muster up motivation. But why is it that the deadlines we set for ourselves often don’t pack the same punch as ones set for us by others?

It’s because they’re artificial.

An artificial deadline may help once or twice. But like a placebo, once you know a deadline doesn’t have consequences it no longer holds any power. This works the same way even with external deadlines, if they don’t have any teeth.

A teacher who doesn’t penalize late work will find his students turning in papers later and later each semester. A parent who says “put your toys away before dinner” but does not punish the child when she fails to comply, will never see the toys put back in their proper place. And a leader who constantly sets false deadlines for project milestones to “keep the team on track” will find that without consequences, those deadlines quickly become worthless.

If you can keep up the illusion, fake deadlines are great. But once people see the cracks, their power vanishes.

The problem then with setting deadlines on ourselves, is that we know they are fake from the start. Because you made them up! Nevertheless, there are ways to hold yourself to a deadline of your own making, but you have to get creative to make it work.

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As I’ve taken on Redeeming Productivity full-time, this has been one of my struggles. I’ve always been a pretty internally motivated guy. And I’ve set clear priorities for what I want to do with this little venture. But the trouble comes when I try to put dates to each of my projects.

In the back of my mind I know if I get behind, I can always just move the deadline. The placebo effect is shattered before the pill even touches my lips.

But here are a few effective ways I’ve found to hold myself to my own deadlines, even though I know I’m just making them up.

1. Externalize the deadline through accountability

Even though you made up the deadline, you can add teeth to it by enlisting accountability. Accountability is when you recruit an external party to help you keep a promise to yourself.

I’ve found my wife to be quite helpful in this capacity. She knows the milestones I’ve set for Redeeming Productivity and she knows the deadlines. And she’s quick to pick up on when I’m waffling about those dates and helps hold my feet to the fire when necessary.

2. Consider the consequences

External deadlines work because there are negative repercussions if you miss them. This could mean an upset client, a lost sale, or a failed grade. But with an internal deadline, there still are consequences. We just forget them sometimes.

“Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”

Proverbs 4:25-27

There is a reason you want to get that thing done by a certain date. That’s why you’ve tried to attach urgency to it with a deadline, after all! So sometimes when motivation is waning, and you’re tempted to shift a deadline, it can help you stay on track to just run through the “ifs” again. Remind yourself why you set that deadline to begin with.

  • “If I don’t finish organize the garage this weekend, then I won’t have a place to put the junk in the guest room next weekend when the in-laws visit.”
  • “If I don’t finish this blog post, I will be working on it when I should be working on my next podcast episode.”

Sometimes just working through the logic again will remind you why that “artificial” deadline actually does matter in the larger scheme of things. If you miss it, you’ll end up paying for it later.

3. Think about the message you’re sending yourself

Every time you make a decision you are becoming a certain kind of person. Certainly, we all let things slide once in a while. We are only human. But it helps to remember that every time we break a promise to ourselves, no matter how small, it becomes easier the next time.

Self-discipline doesn’t know how to compartmentalize. If you are undisciplined in one area of life, that tends to leak over into others. Each time you fail to keep a promise or deadline you made for yourself, you are practicing becoming less disciplined. You are sending yourself a message that it’s okay not to come through. And over time that will make you into a kind of person that you don’t want to become.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.“

Luke 16:10

Sometimes just that thought alone is enough to get my head back in the game and force myself to keep to that promise I made to myself.

Note: This post was adapted from a recent issue of the Reagan’s Roundup Newsletter.

Helping people get more done for the glory of God. Creator of Redeeming Productivity, husband, & father of two.

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