It’s July 5, and you’ve set today as the deadline to finish your research for your brand (or lose your first five pounds, or weed your unruly garden, or write and mail your thank you notes). You wake up and see the date circled on your calendar. You’re terrified; you’re not any closer to completing this goal than you were the day you set it. Naturally, you choose one of two rational courses of action: a) spend the day hiding from your calendar in a pile of tasks requiring immediate attention, or b) organize the silverware drawer. You helplessly feel the day slipping away, the deadline beating at the back of your skull like a tension headache.
By bedtime, you’re deflated. You’ve let yourself down. You’ve been irresponsible. You’re a flake and a failure.
You’ve come down with a horrible case of Arbitrary Deadline Syndrome.
The worse part? You brought it on yourself.
Arbitrary deadlines are those we choose for no specific reason. They are random. They are based on personal whims, insecurities or past failures. We set arbitrary deadlines because we don’t believe we’ll complete tasks without them. We tell ourselves the deadlines will keep us in check, motivate us to act, give us limits within which we’ll successfully operate.
But they don’t. I’ve got news for you: arbitrary deadlines are worse than useless.
Once we become accustomed to disrespecting the arbitrary deadlines in our lives, we disrespect ourselves. This kind of self-disrespect is a gateway drug; casual use leads to disrespect for others and their deadlines, as well.
So how do we set deadlines that work? How do we motivate ourselves to complete the tasks that are complicated, lengthy, ugly or just plain boring? Use any of the following five methods to make sure your deadlines aren’t arbitrary.
- Attach a system to the deadline date. Rather than setting a final date for completion, build a system around the deadline that includes a number of smaller steps or milestones along the way. Use a solid strategy to build this system (the number of pounds you can reasonably lose in a week, the number of marketing plan tasks you can complete in a day, etc.). It’s easier to work a system than to work ahead toward a looming deadline that has no meaning.
- Find an accountability partner. This is more than a friend to whom you confess. A true accountability partner is aware of your goal and your deadline, as well as the motivations behind them. This type of partnership is even more powerful when it’s reciprocal. This way you can set a weekly phone call and support one another in your progress or lack thereof. It’s not necessary — or even better — that your goals be similar or aligned. One of you can be losing weight, while the other writes an e-book. What is beneficial is a give-and-take relationship based on honesty and respect. A one-way relationship can easily end up feeling like nagging, to both you and the partner.
- Start your day by setting an intention, followed by a brief meditation. One of the reasons arbitrary deadlines don’t work is that we set them in a moment of passion, and relinquish them as soon as it wanes. Maintaining your commitment begins with maintaining awareness. Each day as soon as you wake, while you’re sitting in bed, take a moment to set a clear intention for the day in relation to your goal (“Today I will complete a media calendar for my marketing plan,” or “Today I will walk for 30 minutes and cook myself a healthy lunch.”). After setting your intention, take a few moments to sit quietly in meditation. You can simply observe your breathing, or count your breaths — in and out — until you reach 10, and then begin again. Even ten minutes of this type of meditation will be a significant game-changer. A steady ritual of intention and quiet reflection keeps your goal top-of-mind and builds it into the framework of each day.
- Avoid setting the deadline all together. Sometimes, believe it or not, it’s best not to have a deadline. If you gain five pounds every time you go on a diet, it may be the idea of a limited time period that’s tripping you up. Weight loss isn’t a project with a beginning, a middle and end; it’s a way of life. This may also be true for big projects around your home like organizational tasks or yard work, or creative projects you put off, such as writing. Rather than setting an arbitrary date for completion, set small daily goals that are realistic and achievable. It’s not the deadline that will motivate you, but rather the accumulation of small, steady steps and the results they deliver that will keep you on task.
- Create a short-list of no-deadline projects. If your arbitrary deadlines are attached to projects that are work related or less emotionally charged, create a short-list of those projects and keep it on your calendar. Each morning, pull down tasks from the project short-list and put them on your daily to-do list. This will keep you in a constant state of completion without a deadline you’ll simply ignore.
If giving up deadlines seems like anarchy and chaos, consider the price you pay by consistently disappointing yourself and others. Reputation and self-esteem aren’t arbitrary. So don’t risk them by setting deadlines that are.