I know a woman who doesn’t believe in New Year’s resolutions; instead, she establishes a theme for the year instead. Each year, the theme is something she has been wishing or hoping for, but has never made happen. She started doing this because she realized as soon as she set the deadline, everything started to change.
One year it was starting her own business, and she did. The next year it was travel adventures with her family—and she traveled with her husband and kids for 3 months. The year after, it was getting her financial house in order, and she got rid of debt, increased her savings, and fixed some insurance deficits. This year it was choosing where they would live for the next ten years. Guess what? By the end of May, they were already in their new house. It only took 5 months once she set the process in motion.
Yes, each year, she gives herself one goal to focus on, but it is something she has wanted for a long time. She said what really made the difference in achieving each one was her choice to set the deadline: “I have to get this done this year.” The deadline brought real commitment and focus.
Until you get the what and the when in any area of your life, nothing is going to happen. The what is the important goal, but achieving it is almost impossible until you set the deadline. All of life is projects and deadlines. There is no project until you set a deadline. The way you take control of your life is to make sure you’ve got a deadline for every project (goal) you choose.
If you want to take the guesswork out of navigating life successfully—growing and making the things you want to happen, happen—you have to set deadlines. Here are the essentials of why you should be setting more deadlines in your life, not fewer.
1. Deadlines Take You From Floundering to Focusing
My little niece is studying the piano. A couple of times a year, her teacher gets all of her students together for a recital. All the parents come and watch their precious ones perform.
It’s a brilliant strategy to help students make progress. You have to learn a whole piece at a performance level, and you have to do it by this deadline. Every student makes bigger progress in their ability because they have the goal with the deadline.
Serious athletes do the same. They have benchmarks, targets, milestones—deadlines. A swimmer wants to get his 200-meter breaststroke time to under 2:30 by the end of the training season. A college runner wants to get his 100-meter hurdles time to under 12 seconds before the regional competition.
This is how people bring focus to their development and growth. Without deadlines, the goals float out somewhere on the horizon and you flounder around trying to reach them. As soon as a goal has a deadline, it moves front and center in your sight.
Think about the difference between these two statements:
- “I want to lose five pounds”
- “I want to lose five pounds by the end of the month”
The second one has a lot more focus and energy to it, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it seem like the second one is going to have better odds of producing results? Of course it does! Until you have a project and deadline, you won’t move very far or fast.
When a wish or a hope or a dream crystalizes into what and when—the project and the deadline—that’s when all the movement happens.
2. Deadlines Give Your Brain a Framework for Solving Problems
When I launched my business in North Carolina, I set a goal of recruiting 200 representatives in the first year. Morning, noon, and night, we worked to hit that goal by that deadline. So how many did we recruit?
Were we discouraged? Sure. But because my brain was focused on solving that problem and hunting for solutions to every obstacle throughout that year, trying to figure out how we could hit that deadline, I found the answers that allowed me to recruit 25,000 representatives over the next 3 years. And that launched our company onto the national stage in a big, big way.
Your mind can’t activate its problem-solving power until it has a timetable, a deadline. Anything you want to accomplish is going to come with problems of time, resources, and more to solve. As soon as your brain has a target, it starts evaluating options and searching your environment for possibilities. It’s doing it constantly, even when you aren’t conscious of it.
Without the deadline, your brain puts the problem solving on the backburner. What’s the rush? As soon as you set the deadline, your brain says, “Oh, I’ve got to get to work on that now.”
The problems are also easier to solve when you know the timeframe. For instance, you’re going to come up with very different solutions for a goal if you’ve got 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years to achieve it. The timeframe helps your mind sort through the options and your resources faster.
Set the deadline and you’ll be putting your brain to work, solving problems all the time, even while you sleep! Until you have a timetable, you’re mind has nothing to work on.
3. Deadlines Force You to Commit or Let Go
If deadlines are so useful in achieving our goals—and research shows that people with deadlines achieve their goals at a much higher rate than people without deadlines—why don’t more people set them?
Well, they sound stressful, right? We understand that setting a deadline takes us from the thinking to planning. A deadline is a commitment. You’re creating a moment when you have to say to yourself and maybe other people, “This is really important to me. I’m going to do this.” And that’s scary.
We are afraid of the unknowns.
We are afraid to set even tentative deadlines because we feel we don’t understand what the goal will take. There is a certain wisdom and humility in that: you don’t control the future, you don’t know what you don’t know, life is complicated, and you can’t guarantee what will happen. That kind of thinking is fine, up to a certain point, because it helps you to recognize that you’re going to have to learn and grow as you work toward your goal. But if you overdo it, you can convince yourself to never set the deadline, and you’ll never make real progress.
The way to unravel the unknowns is to take charge.
Setting your deadline is the “take charge of your life” moment. This is how you say to yourself, Well, I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but this is what I’m going to go for. I’ll work to figure it out and adjust as I go.
To help you set that first deadline, ask some questions, do some research. Find out how long it took people who have achieved that goal, starting from where you are. Get a fairly clear idea in your head of what it will take.
No matter what, if you set the deadline, you’ll make a commitment to making progress. If you can’t make that commitment, at some point you have to ask whether this is something you really want or not. If not, let it go and stop wasting mental energy on it.
4. Deadlines Don’t Have to Be Stressful
Once you have your overall goal and time frame, you can break it down into bite-sized chunks. A lot of the unnecessary stress over deadlines comes from thinking in terms of doing the entire project all at once. And that’s never how it works. There are always steps along the way and you can focus on knocking them out one at a time. That simplifies the process dramatically.
If you’ve read Serial Winner, you may remember my description of the thinking box (where we are deciding on goals) and the hitting box (where we take action for achieving goals). As usual, psychologists have harder-to-understand words for these ideas: the “deliberative mindset” and the “implemental mindset.”
Here’s an interesting bit of research they did: they gave two groups of people, one in a deliberative mindset and one in implemental, a task. They asked them to predict when they thought they could complete it, to set the deadline. People in the implemental mindset gave shorter predictions than people in the deliberative mindset, and were wrong more often. Remember, we’re all masters at underestimating.
When you’re in the hitting box, you’re more motivated to complete a task than you are when you’re in the thinking box because you’ve committed to it. Giving yourself a deadline can move you into the hitting box. But don’t let that commitment make you impatient, overconfident, or think you can rush things that take time.
Counter your tendency to underestimate with some padding on that deadline or by breaking it down into smaller chunks and focusing on the first things. It will make your deadlines less stressful, and more fun because you’ll be able to enjoy hitting targets and milestones along the way.
5. Even if You Miss the Deadline, You Win
You need to be dead serious when you set a deadline because it is designed to help you focus your energy and effort. But don’t let the fear of missing the deadline paralyze you so much that you don’t set it at all. Commit. Start. Do your very best to hit the deadline you set. If you need more time, don’t beat yourself up over it.
Remember, if all else fails, your deadline can be reset. And while some research says that missing deadlines can make us feel demoralized or can lessen our motivation, other research says that busy people who miss deadlines often still accomplish the goal eventually. In fact, the busier they are, the more likely they are to achieve the goals despite missed deadlines.
When you have the deadline, you win even if you miss the deadline. You learn things you would never have learned if you were just sort of working toward the goal without a timetable.
Free yourself up and say, I don’t know if I can hit it and I don’t know if it’s entirely realistic, but I’m never going to find out if I don’t set the goal. Once you do set it and work toward it, giving it enough focus and energy, you’ll either hit it, or you’ll learn enough to set a better deadline next time. And what you learn about your schedule, your time, your focus, and your ability to adjust will help you set better deadlines in other parts of your life.