When Are We Better Off With Someone Else in Control?

Here’s the myth: Productive people are self-starters. They’re highly motivated. They don’t procrastinate. They’re in control of every situation, and they’re in control of their own minds.

That may be true for some personality types, but it’s not true of every person who has ever managed to get something done efficiently.

For a lot of people, not being in control in two types of situations can lead to being more productive.

1. Assigning Deadlines

Don’t create deadlines for yourself. Let someone else create them for you. If you must set your own deadlines, make them intermittent.

An experiment (Ariely & Wertenbroch, 2002) explains why it’s better to let someone else dictate your deadlines. Subjects got a stack of papers to proofread for money. Some could choose their deadlines, and some were assigned deadlines. People who choose evenly spaced deadlines throughout their time did better than people who chose one final deadline at the end. People who were assigned evenly spaced deadlines spaced also did better than those who were assigned one deadline at the end. The group who did better spent more time on task and earned more money because they caught more errors. Unfortunately, they disliked the task more than the people who turned in all the work at once (the task was designed to be boring).

Another experiment by the same researchers shows that when people get to choose their own deadlines, they’re likely to pick one final deadline that’s as late as possible. Theoretically, that’s the best case because it gives you the most time to do the work. Realistically, however, we know that evenly spaced deadlines simply results in better work. Seeing as we’re unlikely to choose the deadline option that creates the best results, we’re better off letting someone else define deadlines for us.


2. Estimating Time

Don’t trust your ability to estimate time, such as how much time you spent on any given activity or how much time it will take to complete a task.

Human beings are really bad at estimating their time. Most project managers know that people are wildly inaccurate at estimating how much time a task will take to complete. Author Laura Vanderkam tells a story in one of her books (2011) about how when people are asked to list everything they’ve done in a week and estimate how much time it took, their totals often end up being greater than the number of hours in a week.

When it comes to estimating time, we’re better off relinquishing control. Who should be in control, then? Data.

There’s no shortage of apps and software that measure time on task for us. For routine tasks, we can use time-tracking apps. After using them a while, we’ll have more accurate estimates for the future.

For figuring out what we did during our days and weeks, we can similarly use an app that monitors our activities and records them. These apps are only good at measuring computer-based work. Mobile apps that supposedly do the same thing by recording how long we spend in different locations are so far not very accurate. It takes too much time to clean up the data they collect for them to be worth using.

A simple method of recording and analyzing how we spent our time is to log what we’ve done in a note or spreadsheet a few times a day. Jotting down activities soon after they occurred gives a much more accurate estimate than thinking back on a whole week.

What Can You Do?

The next time someone asks when some work  assigned to you will be done, try countering with, “When is it due?” or “When do you need part A, B, and C?” If you can get someone else to assign you a deadline, you might be better off. If you can get them to assign you multiple deadlines that are evenly spaced, it will set you up for the best chances at success.

Similarly, start tracking how long it tasks to complete routine tasks. Use a time-tracking app. Then, when you need to estimate how long something will take to completely, you can rely on data rather than intuition to inform your answer.


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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s