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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jan 6, 2023


Are deadlines always a good thing? And when might they backfire? This week we explore research focused on exactly these questions.



Welcome to episode 168 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore when setting a deadline might backfire, leading to a reduced chance of delivering.

If you want someone to complete a simple task for you, are you better off setting a one week deadline, a one month deadline, or no deadline at all?

A team of researchers explored just this question. They randomly selected New Zealand participants and offered a $10 donation to charity in return for completing a 5 minute survey. Their findings showed that a shorter deadline of one week resulted in a greater response rate than a one month deadline. 6.6% completed the voluntary survey with the shorter deadline, versus 5.5% for the longer deadline. The researchers believed the one month deadline provided the greatest opportunity to procrastinate, and it also saw the lowest number of completions of early responses. So a shorter deadline is definitely better.

Interestingly, providing no deadline to complete the survey actually worked best, with 8.3% of people voluntarily completing the survey. Like the one week deadline, not providing a deadline at all led to a higher number of early responses to the survey than a long deadline.

So how do we apply this research in our leadership? The most direct application is in surveys. When I was heavily involved in employee surveys we used to apply a combination approach. Our initial survey requests typically didn’t include a deadline. After two weeks, we would then provide a one week deadline to those who hadn’t completed the survey. And we would always keep the survey open a week after the deadline. For whatever reason there is always a small number of people who don’t start things until the deadline has passed. This combination produced better results than just providing a two or three week deadline up front.

When we want people to voluntarily complete a short task, we’re best to initially not provide a deadline. If we are asked for a deadline, we’re better off specifying something short like one or two weeks, rather than a longer deadline of a month. This approach helps to provide people with freedom to manage their time. Not setting a deadline provides that freedom while avoiding the risk of procrastination for simple tasks. It’s like we all operate with a range of vision for deadlines.

In a firm I worked for there was a running joke. If anyone ever said something would be ready in six weeks, it was taken to mean that it would never be done. Six weeks was long enough into the future that it was beyond most people’s planning and attention.

For smaller tasks, why not experiment with shorter deadlines and not having deadlines at all. You will likely find things will be completed more reliably and faster than if you set a one month deadline.



Knowles, S., Servátka, M., Sullivan, T. & Genç, M. (2022) Procrastination and the non-monotonic effect of deadlines on task completion. Economic Inquiry, 60( 2), 706– 720.