Reality Check: The Gift of a Deadline

Many of us have had to work to deadlines, even if we don’t always think of them as deadlines. Whether it’s called a due date at school, a vacation date at work, or even a gathering of friends for a party, the requirement to have specific things done by a specific date is pretty common.
Also common to many deadlines is that once the event has passed, you may as well stop working on it. There’s not much point in spending more time preparing for that one important interview once you’ve had it. There’s not a lot of value in studying one more hour for a specific test after you’ve written it. And once the birthday party is over, there’s little satisfaction to be had by continuing to fiddle with the decorations.
Deadlines can cause a good deal of stress. Or more correctly—we sometimes allow deadlines to cause a good deal of stress when we let the deadline have a kind of power over us. We see the clock ticking incessantly, the calendar pages flying by, the dinging of reminders saying, “Time is passing, time is passing, and you’re not ready!”
Deadlines can be particularly difficult for the perfectionists among us (you know who you are). Even when the work is 90% perfect and easily meets the requirements, it can be hard to step away. We want to keep working for perfection.
Without a deadline, we could be working on one task forever! It would never be done because there is always some little tweak that could improve it.
If you’re a student, you could always study a little bit longer. If you’re planning a party, there’s always one more food item to make, another decoration that would be beautiful, and a few more people whom you could invite.
For me, I’m sure there’s not a presentation I’ve given, a lesson I’ve taught or a paragraph I’ve written that wouldn’t have benefited from a little more time, more thought, another look, some improvement that would make it just a bit better.
Recently when fine-tuning a product for which I had a looming deadline, it finally occurred to me to be grateful for that deadline. Without it, the task would never be done, delivered, or come to an end. And endings, closing, delivery is important.
It’s helpful in our lives to celebrate significant dates and occasions. We celebrate graduations and recognitions and special days for special times. We get to stop what we are doing, look at where we are now, and pronounce it good. Or decide that we could do better next time. But reaching an end—coming to a close—is helpful.
If your deadlines bring you more stress than joy, then I’d suggest that you do the rational things that we all know are helpful: make checklists, sort your tasks, set your priorities, delegate where you can and do your best work.
As you are doing that, however, take a moment to think about the deadline from a different perspective—the deadline is a gift that enables you to move from one task to another, with a sense of completion in between.
If you don’t have deadlines set by someone external to you, you can always make your own. Define a point or a date for a task that says to you, “I’m finished, ready or not.”
See how that works. You may find that your completion has fallen short. You may need to start it again as a new project, with a new beginning. But this one task is done. Once this birthday party has been held, this speech has been given, this chapter is written, then you can start anew.
Does a deadline bring stress for you? Or joy?

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