Can a Deadline Be a Lifeline?

Let’s not fool ourselves.

Deadlines help us get work done.

They add pressure, a sense of urgency, and fuel us with stress hormones so that we can rise up to the challenge.

Scott Belsky in Making Ideas Happen says that constraints such as deadlines, “help us manage our energy and execute ideas.”

“While our creative side intuitively seeks freedom and openness, our productivity desperately requires restrictions (…) Constraints serve as kindling for execution. When you’re not given constraints, you must seek them.”

It’s hard to disagree – you and I both know it’s when we have our backs against the wall that we produce our best work.

The electric guitar, of all things, helps us realise this.

What an electric guitar can teach us about productivity

In Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, designer and typographer Stefan Sagmeister talks about creative constraints and how they can be helpful in getting stuff done.

Here’s Stefan:

“I think that any kind of limitation is useful. Any kind of limitation that is clear, and that’s there from the beginning.

Brian Eno has this wonderful little quote about the electric guitar. He says the electric guitar became the dominant instrument of the twentieth century simply because it’s such a stupid instrument.

It can do so very little.

But it can do a few things very, very well, and therefore it allows human nature to go to the edge of what’s possible.”

Stefan is known for his unorthodox approach to creativity but I think the guitar analogy is pretty poignant, don’t you?

Limitations help us tap into what we’re really good at.

And sometimes, you find yourself in situations where you have no choice but to tapped into that – or else it’s game over.

Death ground

Sun Tzu, the author of “The Art of War” spoke of a death-ground.

He would position armies in situations where they had no choice but to fight for their lives.

They were often placed in trapped areas where they had to muster every ounce of will and courage to fend for themselves and ultimately survive.

They would have to beat the opposing armies or they would be slaughtered.

They had to kill or be killed.

Sun Tzu calls this strategy “death ground”.

Robert Greene, author of Mastery, defines death ground as “any set of circumstances in which you feel enclosed and without options.”

In situations in which you have no options, you summon the very best of your abilities to ensure you get yourself out of the situation.

The intensity of such an experience makes you dig into the deepest corridors of your mind, looking for the best solutions.

Ultimately, when you have no choice but to act – you act.

It’s when we have our back against the wall, when we’re on death-ground that we produce our best work.

What happened in the aftermath of the 2012 earthquake that hit the city of Modena, Italy is a testament to that.

Parmesan Cheese

Factories collapsed.

House were flattened.

Historic structures crashed down.

But the earthquake threatened the entire local economy.

Following the aftermath of the earthquake, a distraught Parmesan producer approached Massimo Bottura, the three-Michelin-star chef of the world renowned restaurant Osteria Francescana, to inform him that the earthquake damaged 360,000 wheels of Parmesan.

The producer stressed that if they didn’t come up with a solution quickly, the damaged wheels of Parmesan would spoil.

Parmesan producers would become bankrupt and many people would lose their jobs.

Livelihoods were at stake.

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Massimo was determined to find a solution to help the producers sell everything they’d produced.

There was little time and even less room for error.

Massimo had to come up with an idea.

This is how a recipe called Risotto Cacio e Pepe was created – a recipe combining the damaged Parmigiano Reggiano, rice, and the flavours of a classic Roman pasta dish.

People all over the world enjoyed this unconventional meal.

Importantly, Massimo managed to sell all 360,000 wheels while simultaneously raising awareness about the consequences of the earthquake.

Not one person had lost their job and not a single cheese maker had to declare bankruptcy.

Massimo called this a recipe of “social justice.”

When a deadline can be a lifeline

You can do more than you think you can.

You can do more than you think you’re capable of.

But you have to be put under pressure to just funnel all your efforts and channel it into laser focus.

Whether we like it or not, we humans operate best under tight deadlines.

This is what Scott McDowell who runs the consulting and executive search firm CHM Partners writes in Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind:

“Many creative directors, designers, and architects often say their best work stems directly from specific client restrictions. Having a set of parameters puts the brain in problem-solving mode; there’s something to grip.

It may seem counterintuitive, but too big a playing field can muddle the results. Frank Lloyd Wright insisted that constraints historically have resulted in a flowering of the imagination:

‘The human race built most nobly when limitations were greatest and, therefore, when most was required of imagination in order to build at all.’

Whether or not they’re created by an outside client or you yourself, a set of limitations is often the catalyst that sets creativity free.”

What you can do

Throw your dwindling productivity, your fleeting creativity a lifeline.

By using deadlines to your advantage.

Put yourself on death-ground

You act when you have no choice.

Make yourself have no choice.

Schedule immediate deadlines for sooner rather than later

Work towards the immediate checkpoints.

Break the big deadline up into little deadlines.

Break goals into little sub-goals.

By doing this, you are putting yourself into problem solving mode.

Here’s Dr. Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation:

“To get motivated, they [procrastinators] need a clear and close finish line (…); as delay shrinks, motivation peaks. To apply this principles to your life, you need a concrete and exact notion of what needs to be done because vague and abstract goals (such as ‘Do your best!’) rarely lead to anything excellent. The level of detail required differs from person to person but you should be able to sense when you’ve go enough. Goals should have a corporeal rather than an ethereal feel – you should be able to sink your teeth into them. ‘Complete my last will and testament before flying on the 15th’ is an achievable goal. ‘Get my finances together’, not so much. After creating a specific finish line, schedule it soon. You may need to break up a long-term project into a series of smaller steps.

Use focus blocks

If you have large uninterrupted free block of time, you will typically procrastinate until you start feeling guilty or start feeling the pressure – only then you have no choice but to finally begin.

Why not rethink free blocks of time altogether.

The answer: focus blocks.

Can deadlines be a lifeline?

It’s up to you.


P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.


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