The Boy Who Cried Late! – Why Most Due Dates are Meaningless

May 10, 2016
Henry Vasquez

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
-Leonard Bernstein (American Composer – West Side Story, Peter Pan)

Most of us are driven to take action by a fuel called urgency. When we need something done by a certain date, it receives extra attention. Sometimes, we play a kind of strange mental gymnastics when it comes to deadlines. We create fake deadlines that are aspirational—we WANT to do something by Friday. Nothing bad will happen if we don’t do it on time, but we will probably feel bad.

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Tim Urban from Wait But Why wrote a nice post about Procrastination that explores the painful cognitive dissonance we experience when we allow urgency to dictate our actions. It’s a great exploration of the mental trap we fall into when it comes to getting things done on time.

Tim talks about breaking things into smaller pieces, planning, and using commitment devices to push us forward. We have to design these complex games to keep ourselves accountable.

Entire startups have emerged around trying to help us stay accountable to ourselves.

  • Tip Yourself: Use your tip jar as a vacation fund, a rainy day savings fund or as a way to reward yourself guilt-free (Shoutout to our friends at Tip Yourself)
  • Pact: earn cash for living healthy, paid by members who don’t
  • StickK: offers you the opportunity, through ‘Commitment Contracts’, to show to yourself and others the value you put on achieving your goals
  • Beeminder: offers a motivational tool with a self-tracking system that employs monetary incentives to help users stick to their goals

Many use financial commitments, but some have an even more twisted approach.

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Okay, so we’ve established that motivating ourselves to do things with fake deadlines is hard. What about motivating others?

The best managers at work design a complex set of incentives and plans around when things need to be completed. There are real deadlines in life—taxes need to be paid, client work is due before the next payment will be made, a big Series A fundraise so you don’t run out of cash. But most of the time, there are only a few do-or-die hard deadlines, and the rest are engineered by management to keep things moving forward.

So what’s the problem with deadlines?
For the 95% of things that have fake deadlines, setting a specific time or date is expressing absolute urgency, and what we really need is a concept called “relative urgency.”

Absolute urgency means that if you say something is due on Friday, May 12, when May 13 rolls around, it is now late. If you want to update it and set a new due date, you might slide the task over one day on your calendar app and say it is due today. And then May 14 rolls around and we do this again.

This all seems pretty innocent until you imagine dozens or hundreds of different tasks and due dates. Pretty soon we reassess the urgency of everything we do every week. On the scale of a company, this unmanageable mess becomes the job of a project manager, business analyst, or operations person. Many of the systems we use for work require consistent gardening. If we ignore the information for a few days, everything goes to shit. The weeds sprawl all over our beautiful planter.

This is tiring, but what’s worse is that we lose credibility with our teammates when we do this. The average employee develops a strong bullshit meter for fake deadlines.

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What we need is a way to represent that something is due “in the next day,” not “today.” This expression of relative urgency means that tomorrow the task is still due in the next day. If we want to say something is due in the next week, that means we’d like to do it soon, but will probably only address it once all the things for today are taken care of.

What this allows us to do is express that something might be due sooner or later than another thing, but not by a specific date. When you apply a ranking between tasks, instead of an absolute position, you maintain a kind of economy of tasks. If you have 10 tasks, there’s always something first in order and last in order. If you have 1000 tasks, there’s something that needs to be done precisely 46th. This is a method that can scale with complexity. Instead, if you tried to represent 1000 fixed due dates, the amount of gardening would surely crush any company.

I know what you’re thinking: this is dangerous if there’s something that has a real due date.

Once you’ve established a distribution of relative urgency, you can easily insert items that have absolute urgency. Perhaps you have quarterly filings due on May 15. When it is one week away, it might be the 7th item in relative urgency. On May 7, the items due in the next week would be ahead of it. When May 13 rolls around, it might have moved to 3rd place in urgency. And when the actual due date comes, it will move ahead of all the items due in the next day and behind anything that was due before today (“actually late”).

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My co-founder Sam Harris likens this to a moving sidewalk in an airport. There are other people and bags on the moving sidewalk that stay in front of you at the same distance as you move forward. And there are people with bags outside the moving sidewalk that move past you over time. These are the tasks with absolute urgency. Their distance from you at a snapshot in time represents how urgent they are at that moment.

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What this allows us to maintain a self-gardening, sustainable system of urgency that can scale with a team and handle a large volume of activity. We can measure how much bandwidth we have, or how many tasks we tend to complete in a day or week, and get a good sense of which items on our list will actually be completed. If we see that we are completing on average 20 tasks per week, and there’s an item due in 6 days that is 25th in line, we need to move 5 tasks that have been marked “due in the next week” behind the task in 25th place.

At Tribe, the way we like to express relative urgency is through the following terms:

  • Later (after the next week)
  • Soon (in the next week)
  • Now (in the next day)
  • Late (in the past)

And at the same time, we allow for absolute urgency (due dates) to exist in parallel with this ordinal set.

What we found is that this doesn’t eliminate the re-evaluation of urgency, but it greatly reduces the amount of wasted effort it takes to maintain the system. It does, however, shift the attention to another important metric that is brought to the forefront—how much work is getting done in a week. The tracking of throughput puts the emphasis on efficiency, which can rub many people the wrong way. Ultimately, we know that efficacy (producing desired results) is much more important than efficiency (doing something quickly or with low cost), but we have yet to find any reliable way to measure efficacy.

For more about efficiency, efficacy, and other productivity concepts, enjoy our blog.

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