How Deadlines Produce Better or Worse Results

Former Obama staffer Jon Lovett would take “panic naps” before writing speeches for the President. He’d put off the task until the last minute, and then when the deadline was looming, he’d go to sleep. By the time he woke up, he had no time to do anything but write a speech that would need minimal revision.

Lovett had a successful career in the political arena and went on to become a screenwriter and producer of television shows. His love of high-pressure situations, even when self-induced, is rare. Most people simply don’t enjoy what happens when they procrastinate. And they don’t do their best work that way either.

The Optimal Deadline… In Theory

An experiment (Ariely & Wertenbroch, 2002) tested how people perform under different deadline conditions. University students in a class all had to write three papers. For the study, they were given different deadline conditions. One group got to choose their own deadlines. Another group were assigned deadlines that were evenly spaced throughout the semester. The students who got to choose their deadlines had to announce those deadlines in advance, and the deadlines were binding.

Theoretically, the students who had a choice clearly had one best possible option: Turn in all the papers on the last day of class. Making the deadline the last day for all three papers gives them the maximum amount of time to write the papers, and they will have learned all there is to learn by the time they write them. Now think about the group of students who have to turn in papers every few weeks. Say your first deadline is three weeks into the semester. You are at a serious disadvantage because you have had only three weeks of instruction, and you’ve had only three weeks to work on the paper. So in theory, the students who make their deadline for all three papers the very last day of class should have higher grades than students who must had in papers at evenly spaced intervals.

The rules of the class were that there would be no advantage to handing in papers early. The instructor wouldn’t grade the papers or give any feedback until all the end of the semester when all the papers were returned. However, papers that were handed in late would be penalized 1 percent of the grade for every day late.

Clearly, the students who create their own deadlines would do best to choose to hand in all three papers on the last day. Even if they need some kind of nudge to write the papers sooner than that, they could create self-imposed deadlines to write each paper earlier. Doing so would still give them an opportunity at the end of the semester to revise the papers. They could also just hand them in early if they decided they wanted to.

But that is not what happened.

When We Know We’re Inclined to Procrastinate

Only 27 percent of the students chose the optimal deadline. The others mostly set their deadlines to be evenly spaced throughout the semester. The researchers think the students made this choice because they were afraid of their own ability to procrastinate. Choosing earlier deadlines is a form of applying self-control.

So who got the higher grades? On average, the students who were assigned deadlines did better than the students who chose their own deadlines.

Among only the students who set their own deadlines, who do you think earned higher grades: those who chose the optimal last-day deadline, or those who spaced out their deadlines? The evenly-spaced deadline bunch did better. In fact, their grades were about the same as the group who were assigned evenly spaced deadlines. In other words, how well the students performed is attributed to the deadlines, rather than the fact that one group chose their own deadlines and the other group were assigned them.

I thought about whether there might be a different explanation. What if the students who chose stricter deadlines already had more self-control? It could be that the personality trait that drives students to impose tougher deadlines also drives students to work on their papers more diligently, whereas student who chose the theoretically optimal deadline are also more prone to procrastinate. The problem with this theory is that the students who were assigned deadlines throughout the semester got the same grades on average as those with self-imposed, evenly spaced deadlines. If it were chalked up to personality, then the procrastinators would have gotten lower grades in the assigned deadline group, bringing down the average.

It seems that assigned deadlines are, overall, a safer bet. Having deadlines assigned by an external force, such as a university instructor or a boss, might produce better results than when we choose our own deadlines.

Cling to Assigned Deadlines

We know that people are very bad at managing their time. But it seems that most people have enough self-awareness to know that they are prone to procrastination. That’s why 73 percent of students who got to choose their own deadlines settled on a suboptimal choice. They knew that the benefits of having evenly spaced deadlines would outweigh the benefits of having more time to submit all their papers.

Pressure can sometimes force us to action, the way it did for the speechwriter Jon Lovett. In many circumstances, though, delaying a task until there’s no time left to do anything but the task backfires. It doesn’t leave sufficient wiggle room, or slack, for life to get in the way. It doesn’t leave us with a plan B if we suddenly get sick or unexpected have to stay up all night taking care of a sick pet, child, or partner. It also doesn’t give us another option if we simply procrastinate too long and don’t get the work done. Procrastinating a task until the very last minute also doesn’t give us an opportunity to reflect on our work and consider whether and how it could be improved. While some select people may work best under extreme pressure, many don’t, and research proves as much.


Ariely, D. & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, American Psychological Society 13(3): 219-224.

Image by Adikos, CC.


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