The Death of Deadlines

Deadlines are obsolete.  Actually, that’s slightly stretching the point.  Deadlines have lost their efficacy and they are no longer motivating.  In fact, they do damage.  Why is this?  How did this happen?  How will we get anything done now?

The late, lamented author, Douglas Adams, was fond of saying, “I love deadlines.  I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”  He was well ahead of his time, in even this thought.

The problem with deadlines is that people take them way too seriously and this is what has eroded their efficacy.  In declaring something as having a hard, inflexible, unbreakable deadline, people have been making inhuman and inhumane sacrifices, in order to meet them, for fear of…well…dying.  In the process, they’ve been killing themselves and each other.  Eventually, we’re all dead anyway.  Deadlines cause “fear of death” fatigue.  “Kill us, already.  You’re already killing us.”

Deadlines often arrive or loom, when the work is still incomplete.  If the work matters and is important, can there be anything more self-defeating and short-sighted than sabotaging that work by cutting corners, compromising on quality and cheating or short-changing the project’s sponsors?  If, on the other hand, the work is trivial or unimportant, then why does it have a deadline?

Managers realise that they can “stampede the cattle” by placing strict deadlines on every task, regardless of how inconsequential.  They make them up, arbitrarily and artificially, driven by no real-world concern, because they think it’s a way to get more work out of their employees.  It’s done for greed, not to ensure that important work is done well, meeting up with other immovable synchronisation points.  Deadline promiscuity substitutes for sensible forward planning and adequate resourcing.  Just impose a silly deadline on the work and people will find a way to meet it.  Or they will be killed.  Only a manager that has no care whatsoever for their people, the quality of the work, or the satisfaction of the customers, operates this way, but guess what?  It’s the default mode of operation, in so many situations.  They call it “being ahead of the game”, but it’s really placing everybody firmly behind the eight ball.

It’s properly absurd to suggest that the failure to complete, by some arbitrary hour or calendar date, some of the most inconsequential, unimportant and trivial projects ever conceived by man, should be punished by the death penalty.  As if that’s a justified and appropriate penalty for non-compliance with a whim.  It’s equally absurd to suggest that anyone or anything would really die, but people insist on imbuing their deadlines with this massively disproportionate significance.  It devalues the deadlines that are truly worth meeting.

When you think about it, only members of a death cult would fetishise death so casually in this way.  An obsession with death, like this, is not psychologically healthy.  They say we must go for “death or glory”, but you can’t eat either one of these.  They don’t sustain you, nourish you and cause you to grow, or help you thrive.  Time pressure has simply turned into plain, old-fashioned pressure.  It’s a form of bullying, in disguise.

Long-term, prolonged stress simply burns people out, causing horrendous health consequences.  Few deadlines are truly worthy of paying that price.

Yet, the tendency is so ingrained, that parents of small children often find themselves speaking to them in a way that indicates perpetual pressure and impatience, if not fury.  They start their sentences with, “Hurry up, we’re going to be late.”  They end their sentences with it, too.  They start their day, applying deadline pressure.  “We’re going to miss everything, if you don’t hurry up.”  “Hurry up and eat your breakfast.”  “Hurry up and get dressed”.  They also end their day with it.  “Hurry up and brush your teeth.”  “Hurry up and get into bed.”  What message does that send to young children?  That the only thing that matters is being on time?  To hell with calm observation, musing, delight, fascination, curiosity, daydreaming, wonder, exploration, play and imagination.  None of those things matter as much as hurrying up.

The words, “hurry up”, of course, do little or nothing to increase a child’s speed.  A child is still trying to experience, make sense of and notice the world, at their own pace.  Some parents use the words, “hurry up”, more than they use the words, “I love you.”  How sad that parents should have become so indoctrinated into the self-importance of urgency and deadlines, that they should speak to their own children so harshly, mercilessly and without compassion.

Good artists have always known that a deadline is a notional target.  It’s a reasonable estimate of when something ought to be done, to work toward.  However, it isn’t the primary concern.  Making great art is what matters.  If that takes a little longer than anticipated, it is always a good trade-off.  Making art on a schedule increases the temptation to do something safe, boring, derivative and lacking finish.  If you set out to make art of outstanding quality, which every artist ought to, every time they make art, then it’s inevitable that it will overrun, more often than not.  Learning how to work quickly is not the same as abandoning the work, when the time is up.

Everything that is truly worth your time, talent and energy to do is going to be uncertain, exploratory, innovative and risky, so deadlines will never hold or have meaning, for such projects.  The work will take as long as it takes, until it’s done and not a second less.  This allows for enough time for the imaginative conception, the struggle to bring it into reality, the setbacks, the mistakes and eventually, the triumph.  It also allows time to revive and recover from fatigue, so that you can get your focus back.

Artists have always known that the work is finished only when they say it is and not a moment sooner.  Anybody else declaring “time’s up” is an imposter.  They are imposing on the art and on the artist.

Deadlines are not the future, they’re history and the world actually has very little time remaining, in which to realise it.  I am fully aware of the irony contained in this statement.

I’m declaring deadlines dead – as of right now.  Time’s up.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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