Why We Miss Deadlines, and How to Stop

Sometimes it seems as though the only way to make a writing deadline is to not have one. But why, dammit? Why? Here’s one explanation:

If this line isn't dead, then what the hell is it?

If this line isn’t dead, then what the hell is it?

by Belle Cooper

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”- Douglas Adams

We’re obsessed with planning when we’ll get work done. But when we need to knuckle down and put our plans into action, we push tasks back further and further, up until the last minute—or worse, past the established deadline.

It happens to us all. But some of us struggle with deadlines more than others. It’s not completely our fault, though: Our brains hold a hidden bias that leads us into this trap.

Why we miss deadlines

The Sydney Opera House was supposed to be completed in 1963, for $7 million. I bet you know where this is going: A scaled-back version opened 10 years late, in 1973, with a final price tag of $102 million.

The developers fell victim to the planning fallacy—our built-in tendency to underestimate how long a task takes to complete. It tends to make us attribute failing to meet deadlines to external factors, rather than our inability to plan effectively.

When we initially plan our workload, the deadline is usually far enough away that it’s somewhat abstract, and the planning fallacy influences our thinking. As the deadline gets closer, it becomes more realistic and we actually start getting the work done.

Part of why we fall for the planning fallacy over and over is because we don’t plan for hiccups. When we estimate the time we need for a task or project, we imagine the best-case scenario for each step involved. Inevitably, we do hit snags, and the work swells to huge proportions, making it harder for us to meet our deadlines.

Why We Still Need Deadlines

Although the stress of working on a deadline can be frustrating, Melissa Dahl from Science of Us points out that deadlines are “often the only reason people ever get anything done.”

Historically, the word “deadline” had a more literal meaning. A “dead-line” was originally a line around a prison “over which no prisoner is allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot.”

Now that deadlines are associated with the workplace, we’re more lax on the penalties. But the concept stands: deadlines can mean life or death for your productivity, project or job.

Parkinson’s law is an adage that says “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Or, in other words, a task will take up as much time as you allow for it. This is why we’re sometimes amazed at how much we can get done in short periods of time. It’s also why we’re often found scrambling to complete something at the last minute, despite a lead time of days or weeks.

If you take Parkinson’s law into account, you can see how having no deadlines would mean hardly anything would get done. When you have infinite time to complete a task, it will take you infinite time to get done.

How to Overcome the Deadline Bias

So how can we overcome the planning fallacy and make deadlines work for us? It’s incredibly hard to beat a built-in cognitive bias, but building awareness about how deadlines change our behavior can help us be more productive—despite the drawbacks.

Read it all at Zapier