Psyched About Another Deadline? Neither Are Your Employees

Psyched about Another Deadline? Neither Are Your Employees

Staying motivated in the face of constant deadlines.

— Logistics Flow Analyst

I assume this Logistics Flow Analyst is talking about herself. But she could also be speaking on behalf of her entire team. Logistics is no place for procrastinators. Many managers who struggle to motivate their employees are also feeling her pain. Like the Learning and Development Manager from a few posts ago whose workforce was “overburdened with operational/transitional.”

Here’s the problem with deadlines: they take a lot of motivation, but they are not motivating in themselves. Despite conventional wisdom, deadlines are the opposite of motivating. For experiment’s sake, take a task you enjoy and often perform without being reminded—and set a deadline to it. Make it doable, but tight. Great. What happened to your motivation?

If you are like me, you’ll see your motivation change sides. Suddenly, you’re dividing your attention between the original task and a competing one. Or maybe you are still focused on your task, but it has become much more involved and complicated.

Setting a deadline is a little like trying to invoke the Law of Attraction. If you try too hard, it means you worry that it won’t happen. And, according to the Law of Attraction, you’ll be right.

“You know nothing about my business, Tim. If you’re telling me I don’t need deadlines, you’re way off! I’m not going to waste my time reading your article. I’ve got a deadline to catch!”

No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that deadlines are not motivating. They are pure punishment and no reward. If you want to stay motivated, you have two options: (1) reduce deadlines, or (2) increase rewards.

Let’s talk about that a bit.

Reduce deadlines

Okay, some deadlines are unnecessary—specifically all unrealistic, artificial, and routinely ignored deadlines.

First, I don’t believe that every project needs a deadline. If people are motivated to make something happen, I err on the side of leaving them alone. An example is our software version releases.

Our developers look forward to turning live new features and updates. We usually create them to help a specific group of customers, and we can’t wait to see their response.

We let our customers know that we are working on a new release, but we don’t set a deadline. We would rather have all the time in the world to get it right than stress out and make mistakes. The updates are a continuous process. There’s no need to impose deadlines. We get into a good rhythm, and I see no reason to change it.

Second, I believe in taking my time when setting deadlines. One little-known trick to avoiding procrastination is to procrastinate your commitment. (That sounds like something else, but hang on, don’t let me get distracted.) When a project has many unknowns, I prefer to give people time to settle in and see how it goes. I don’t want them to commit to an arbitrary date and set themselves up for failure.

Of course, some deadlines are not up to us. If the deadline misery comes from a customer or some other outside source, it’s time to look into your process. See where you can cut uncertainty and increase predictability. Maybe the Logistics crew could put their heads together to create a standard process that automatically delivers on time. Wouldn’t that be motivating?

Increase rewards

What if you just suck it up and deal with erratic and unforgiving deadlines?

Some people think they can foolproof deadlines by adding more deadlines. Like having two soft deadlines before the hard deadline. It might work temporarily, but it’s a slippery slope. Your brain requires positive reinforcement to form a new habit. And constant deadlines just don’t deliver. The only way your brain can find gratification is by blowing these deadlines. So, you be the judge of what kinds of habits it’ll form.

You might argue that a deadline carries its own reward: once you’ve met your deadline, you are done! But that’s only true for the last task on your list. When your work is a never-ending stream of ASAPs, you don’t get to feel done. You toggle between average fear and extreme panic. What kind of reward is that?

Let’s turn to our Learning and Development Manager from a recent post for advice. Recall that her chief complaint was that the people weren’t able “to focus on transformational/strategic.” And that’s a big problem. Because transformational/strategic is motivating. It provides a context for grinding chores and loathsome deadlines. And context is the source of the all-powerful personal reality we were talking about earlier. (See “Hate your Coworkers? You’re in Good Company”)

Keep it in mind that a true transformation may be slow in coming. Work on your strategy to get your people some breathing room and show them the light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, just do something—anything—to reward them in the short term. Food, prizes, comic relief… (More ideas in Chapter 14, Reward Like a King, of my book Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?)

In short, I don’t blame this Logistics Flow Analyst for hating her deadlines. Constant deadlines are toxic, and managers should know better than to expect people to just deal with them. If you can’t ease your people’s pain, at least reward them for putting up with it.


If you hate deadlines, you might like my book, because you can read it at your own pace.

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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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