How to Complete Things on Time

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Scenario: "Dude, to complete all of our client projects, let's just set a single deadline. Then we'll try to finish all of our projects by the deadlines we set. Everybody does that. We'll accomplish so much, and be billionaires. Yay!" Blah. Here's why: The familiar cycle-that-keeps-on-cycling, known to most business builders, goes:

  • Day 1: "Dude, let's finish this project by the next month! Yay!"
  • Day 30: "Dude, we haven't finished yet. Let's re-set the deadline to the next two weeks. Yay!"
  • Day 45: "Man. Still not finished. We suck. Let's re-schedule the deadline to 15 more days. Yay!"
  • Day 60: "Uh-oh. Still not finished. Let's turn in this shoddy work, anyway."

It's a vicious cycle that we're sure you're familiar with if you've ever worked on any big project for you, your client, or your company.

We call it the "Set-it-and-forget-it" cycle.

(Yeah, we kind of stole the term from that awesome Rotisserie dude in those infomercials.) That is, you set a single deadline for your project (e.g. "Get Lisa's project done by the end of the week.") -- then you completely ignore the project until a few days before it's due. As a result, you turn in shoddy work well after the deadline. Sound pretty familiar, doesn't it?

To most of us, "One-Big-Deadline" is a fact of life.

That was the continuing theme when we started Trizzy. To an extent, it still is -- and we admit it. That's why we're re-writing this article so you won't make the same mistakes we did -- and still do. So how do you turn kick-ass work on time? Simple:

First, set the ultimate deadline; then set a series of deadlines in between.

It's so easy, it's sexy. Four reasons why you must set a series of deadlines:

  1. It gets you working now.

    Most people set deadlines way in advance. Then, they tell themselves: "Hey, that deadline's not until the next five months. We don't really have to focus on the sucker yet." So they don't work on the project until that very last month. As a result: shoddy work delivered well behind schedule. A series of deadlines on the other hand, gets you producing now -- by breaking that big-ass deadline into a series of small, manageable ones.
    • You can't climb Mount Everest without setting milestones.
    • You can't climb a flight of stairs with one leap.

    No, you take it step-by-step. A series of deadlines gives you those steps, and drives you to produce results now to start climbing those steps.
  2. It gets you producing kick-ass results at every stage of the project.

    When you set a big deadline, you're focused on the big picture. That's it. You don't worry about the small details. You don't have any milestones for the project, except for that ultimate peak. Instead of excelling every step of the way there, you're bumbling around clumsily trying to get to the top -- without building a solid foundation to get there.

    Say you're starting a Mexican restaurant near a university. You have two ways to set your ultimate deadline.

    Scenario 1:
    • Deadline ^1 (Day 20): Open taco restaurant to students.

    Scenario 2:
    • Deadline ^1 (Day 1): Get chef.
    • Deadline ^2 (Day 5): Get friendly front-line workers.
    • Deadline ^3 (Day 7): Get tacos shells, condiments.
    • Deadline ^4 (Day 10): Lease retail space.
    • Deadline ^5 (Day 15): Furnish space.
    • Deadline ^6 (Day 16): Send out marketing materials.
    • Deadline ^7 (Day 18): Finish training workers.
    • Deadline ^8 (Day 19): Get meat. Get cheese. Get drinks.
    • Deadline ^9 (Day 20): Open taco restaurant to students.

    Why Scenario 1 Sucks; and Why Scenario 2 Rocks
    1. Scenario 1 psychologically makes you think you have way more time to open the shop. Then like most people, you'll probably wait until Day 10 to even really do something. By Day 20, you'll likely miss the deadline. By Day 25, you'll open your shop -- but you're missing condiments and cheese, and other assorted -- but vital -- stuff.
    2. Why Scenario 2 rocks: This scenario gets you kicking ass every step of the way there. You have clear small deadlines/milestones to help you kick ass on that ultimate big one.
  3. It keeps you on track to getting the sucker done on time.

    How many times have you made good on your self-set deadlines? Likely, it's not working in your favor. A series of deadlines on the other hand works to your advantage because you'll have many chances to complete a deadline if you miss one. For example:
    1. You miss Deadline ^1.
    2. You know you've set Deadline ^2 for tomorrow.
    3. You work overtime trying to complete both Deadline ^1 and Deadline ^2 for tomorrow.

    In other words, you get more chances to make up for your missed deadlines. This keeps you on track and boosts your chances to finish the entire enchilada by that ultimate deadline.
  4. It's in the research.

    Yeah, you know we don't claim things if they're not absolutely right, would you? Research by MIT's Dan Ariely and INSEAD's Klaus Wertenbroch concluded that setting a series of deadlines works best:


    In one experiment, three groups of people were asked to complete a complex proofreading assignment.
    1. The first group was given a single deadline, three weeks out, for completing all the work.
    2. The second group was given a series of interim, weekly deadlines for completing portions of the job.
    3. Members of the third were told to set their own interim deadlines. Participants were paid according to the number of errors they corrected and were penalized for missed deadlines.

    The Results

    The results showed dramatic differences in both the timeliness and the quality of the work performed by the three groups.
    1. The worst performance on both counts was turned in by the group with a single, end-of-project deadline. Their work, on average, was 12 days late, and they corrected an average of only 70 errors.
    2. The best performance was delivered by the group that was given a series of interim deadlines; their work was only 0.5 days late on average, and they caught 136 errors.
    3. The performance of the group that set its own interim deadlines fell in the middle: 6.5 days late, on average, with 104 errors caught.

So when you're setting that one, big deadline -- don't forget to add those smaller ones as well. The moral:

Set a series of deadlines. Start noticing your badass kicking ass.

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Posted on September 29

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