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Why Deadlines Are Actually Life-Giving

We need to embrace deadlines for what they can do to help us rather than hinder us.

In the realm of business operations, few words carry as much dread with them as does “deadline”. Since most people encounter the concept of a deadline during their school days, the negative connotations associated with the term can tend to be carried along into the professional world. Particularly for owners of businesses that are in the creative sphere, deadlines more often than not are viewed as hindrances to be grudgingly dealt with, rather than something to be actively pursued.

Part of the bad reputation embodied in deadlines can be framed in the etymology of the word itself. First coined during the American Civil War, the expression originally referred to a perimeter line drawn around prisoner-of-war camps. The understanding within the camp was that any prisoner who dared to cross over the line would be immediately shot dead by the guards, and thus the expression “deadline” was born. The terminology continued in a military capacity throughout the rest of the 1800’s, but, by the middle of the 20th century, it began to morph into the definition still in use today – a hard, rigid time constraint in which something is to be completed.

Although the term initially enjoyed its greatest use in the realm of journalism, it gradually crept into virtually every facet of business and education. From newspaper editors trying to ensure that the evening edition would go to press on time to high school teachers mandating when essays needed to be handed in, society adopted the concept wholesale. As the 21st century dawned and the digital information age emerged, the practice of assigning deadlines became even more ingrained in the American psyche. And, as the demands of daily life grew even more complex, the already glum reputation of the deadline seemed to intensify.

But What If the Perception of Deadlines Isn't Really As Accurate As We Always Believed?

Anyone can grumble when the boss asks for something to be completed by next Tuesday, but looking beneath the obvious exterior of pressure and obligation can actually reveal a tremendous hidden benefit to deadlines. And viewing them from a different vantage point can end up eliminating the bad connotation to such a degree that they can actually become very attractive components for the small business owner who’s looking for the most effectual ways to work.

If you can embrace deadlines for what they can do to help you rather than hinder you, you can unlock a tremendous time management tool. Nothing you do in your business – from the smallest daily task to the largest and most complex project – can ever be done in an efficient way without some sort of time parameter. Going back to the Civil War definition – if you cross the line, you’re dead! In the context of our daily operations, we need to ensure that we’re capable of accomplishing what we need to today – today. Although we theoretically might be able to push something off until tomorrow, the reality is that we’re likely to then end up impacting whatever tomorrow was supposed to hold.

Using sensibly defined deadlines can actually be a stress reliever for the business owner. Rather than arbitrarily plowing through the tasks at hand and hoping that things somehow all come together, the astute entrepreneur can leverage a deadline to create self-accountability. A journey of a thousand miles might be a tough trek if there were no mileposts to mark the progress of the voyage. So, in our businesses and organizations, a completely open-ended approach leaves so much room to maneuver that it’s more likely that we’ll simply go in circles.

Just as a painter uses a canvas to establish a framing of the scene being painted, so can we use deadlines to draw a border around whatever business function we’re undertaking. The deadline can serve to foster realistic expectations about what our business or organization is capable of accomplishing, provided that the person implementing the deadline has a thorough understanding of what’s required to do the necessary work. By establishing a specific timeframe for completion, errors or problems can actually be easier to identify, and there’s a much higher probability of course corrections being made while things are underway.

The one potential downside of deadlines is that they can inadvertently open the door to procrastination. In 1955, a British historian named Cyril Northcote Parkinson developed a concept that is today referred to as Parkinson’s Law. His observation was, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It’s human nature to take as long as we believe we have to finish something, so deadlines that have no grounding in reality or that are given without careful thought can actually end up causing things to take longer to get done.

If you’ve shied away from deadlines in your professional life, consider how liberating they can be if you apply them properly. By embracing a self-imposed constraint, you may just discover that you’re freeing yourself to accomplish even more than you were originally hoping to.


ValorExcel offers strategies to help you THRIVE in life and business. To find out more, contact us today at or call 240-329-9387. Also, be sure to visit us on our YouTube Channel for tips, insights, and guidance on how you can truly do smart work in your organization.

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