Jerod Santo

Arbitrary deadlines are actually awesome

you just have to remember that they're arbitrary

After reading Lucas da Costa’s Why deadlines are pointless and what to do instead, I agree with almost every point he makes, especially this one:

It’s about time we start calling deadlines by their real name: pressure

Lucas goes on to describe how deadlines can cause harm, can’t actually make people code faster, and so on. I agree with that too. But does that make them pointless? Not necessarily!

Sometimes a little pressure is just what the doctor ordered. Here’s what I mean by that.

Note: Lucas’s article is written to software teams that are dedicated to a single product. This post is to a slightly different audience: those of us with many disparate things we could be working on at any given time. For that reason, I don’t believe his take on Parkinson’s Law applies in this context. If you disagree, please do let me know in the comments!

Stuff doesn’t just magically get done 🪄

Parkinson’s law tells us that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. That rings true, doesn’t it? There’s a corollary to this law:

If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

I know this one all too well. (And I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced it yourself.) Now, let’s take that saying extremely literally for a moment: how can you wait until the last minute if there isn’t a last minute to wait for? You’ll never do the thing!

Instead, combat your propensity to delay work (until some imaginary future date when some better version of yourself magically makes it all happen) by creating an arbitrary deadline for completion and trying your best to hit it.

An example that’s been working for me 💪

Every tenth episode of Ship It! we talk about the work we’re doing here at Changelog to make things better. That means I know that every two and a half months, I’m gonna go on a podcast and talk about what I accomplished. So when that sucker is coming up my brain is like, “We’re shipping stuff!”

Arbitrary enough for you? We literally made it up. It means nothing. I could go on that show and say, “I didn’t ship anything this time”… and nobody would care. We’d probably even get a few laughs out of it. But it has proven itself as a motivating factor for me to finish some stuff.

Some ideas on coming up with a good deadline 🧠

Need some help picking a deadline that will motivate you to ship? Here’s a starter list:

  • Your birthday 🎂
  • The end of the quarter 📅
  • New year’s day 🥳
  • A competitor’s launch date 😏
  • An upcoming trip/vacation 🏖

Those are all pretty generic. I’m sure you can get creative and tie an arbitrary deadline to something going on in your life.

You do have to remember that it’s arbitrary ⌛️

Problems arise when arbitrary deadlines get concretized in our minds and we begin making other plans that depend on them. That’s not the point! Refer back to Lucas’s article for all of the reasons why that deal is a non-starter.

When it becomes apparent that you aren’t going to hit an arbitrary deadline, you have to pick a new arbitrary deadline that’s further down the road and try to hit that one instead.

I stated this case (in less words) when Lucas joined us on The Changelog to discuss his thoughts on product development structures as systems. It was a fascinating conversation that I think you’d enjoy. Give it a listen before your next birthday! 😉


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2022-10-24T12:33:09Z ago

This resonates with me, and runs parallel to something I tell my team a lot: constraints (can be) are a good thing. Lucas’ reframing of deadlines as pressure is a good constraint, and can help a team decide on priority, scope and which bets to go after.

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