By Meng Zhu
‘Can you get that to me by the end of the day?” isn’t a request employees like to hear. But for many people, having shorter deadlines instead of longer ones might actually help them complete a task and see their work as being less difficult.
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Our findings suggest that managers need to view deadlines more comprehensively. First, whereas Parkinson’s Law suggests that longer deadlines lead people to set easier goals and therefore decrease effort, we found that longer deadlines increase an assignment’s perceived difficulty.
Second, while Parkinson’s Law makes a prediction only about time commitment, we found that longer incidental deadlines increase monetary commitment. As a result, when an assignment also includes a budget, it might be better to set a shorter deadline than a longer one.
These findings related to only single deadlines, and many of us balance multiple deadlines of varying lengths at a time. My colleagues Yang Yang and Chris Hsee and I designed a separate study to consider how individuals respond to a group of deadlines. We concluded that when faced with multiple deadlines for tasks that vary in importance, people regularly pursue less-important assignments with shorter deadlines rather than more-important assignments with longer deadlines. In our article in the Journal of Consumer Research, we called this the “mere urgency effect” to reflect how limited time windows affect the ways individuals choose what tasks to complete.
These studies showed us that people’s tendency to procrastinate on what is important in order to finish less-important urgent assignments reflects a basic psychological preference. Many of us know this intuitively; we constantly check and respond to emails rather than work on the revenue report or our team project. This may happen because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion, urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs, or people want to finish the urgent tasks first and then work on important tasks later. However, our studies go one step further by showing that we may prioritize urgent yet trivial tasks even when these reasons are controlled for. We behave as if pursuing urgent tasks has its own appeal, independent of objective consequences.
These patterns are important for managers and others setting deadlines to recognize, in large part because our findings reveal ways to game the system: Short deadlines on urgent tasks elicit attention. When deadlines are distant, managers can shift people’s attention away from the deadline and toward the final outcomes of everyday tasks. Reminding employees of the final payoffs of different tasks is an effective way to do this.
Meng Zhu is an associate professor of marketing at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.