How to Effectively Set Deadlines, While Avoiding the Negative Impacts of Time Pressure

Leaders and managers in all fields use time pressure to push their people toward completing goals and benchmarks quickly. We set deadlines, daily priorities, and sometimes we demand for things be completed now. Often when we spring short-fuzed deadlines and demand tasks be completed immediately. Resulting in either poorly developed products or mishaps. Depending on your line of work, time pressure can sometimes result in safety mishaps where people get hurt and equipment gets damaged.

In this post I want to explore the inadvertent effects of time pressure on individual and team performance and how to effectively use time pressure as a leader.

I first started exploring the effects of time pressure when I read about the Princeton Seminarian Study conducted by John Darnley and Dan Batson. In the study, the researchers took seminary students and asked them to prepare a sermon about the “Good Samaritan” (a story from the Bible, where “holy” individuals pass by a hurt man in need, but then a “lowly” Samaritan stops to help the hurt stranger). The seminaries prepare the sermon in a lecture hall and then are called in one by one to the delivery the sermon before a panel using one of three prompts:

  • Low Hurry: “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over. If you have to wait over there, it shouldn’t be long.”
  • Immediate Hurry: “The (studio) assistant is ready for you, so please go right over.”
  • High Hurry: “You’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago…You’d better hurry. It shouldn’t take but just a minute.”

After the hurry prompt, the student left the lecture hall and walked to the evaluation room, but just before the doorway leading to the evaluation room, there was a man slumped on the floor moaning and coughing.
The percentage of students that stopped to help the man in need are plotted below in accordance with their hurry prompt:

As seen above, the proportion of seminarian students who stopped to help drastically declined as they felt more time pressure from 63% stopping to help in the “low hurry” group to 11% stopping to help in the “high hurry group.” All this happened despite the fact that these were men studying to join a profession of helping others and they had just prepared a sermon about helping strangers. You could look at whether or not these men stopped to help as a matter of personal character, but what we’re really seeing is that the situational factors (time in this case) can narrow our cognitive scope. Like a horse with blinders, we only see the track ahead. We see less and think less when we are under significant time pressure. Our peripherals fall out of view and you don’t see the man in need of help.

In addition to our moral decision making, time pressure can have other detrimental effects on our teams to include: decreased empathy for team-mates, less creativity, increased levels of stress and burnout, increased bias and groupthink, increased risk of safety mishaps, sloppy/incomplete work, and overall less performance/output. Time pressure can have negative impacts on performance when we have too little time.

So what’s the alternative? We can’t task our team without deadlines and say, “just get that report to me when you can,” or, “I need you to construct that skyscraper, but take your time.”

The key to applying time pressure effectively lies in setting incremental, appropriately spaced time deadlines while avoiding setting unrealistic deadlines that induce “panic mode” in your team members.

In Don Moore and Elizabeth Tenney’s January 2012 research article, “Time Pressure, Performance, and Productivity,” the two psychologists sought to explore the optimum level of time pressure or an optimal way to set deadlines. They start by defining the difference between performance and productivity and then seek to lay out the relationship between the two and time pressure. They define performance for a given task as the quality “without regard to time or cost” and productivity as how much performance you can squeeze out per unit of time. In other words, productivity is how much quality you can get in the least amount of time. Lastly, they discuss utility as the amount of benefit gained in contrast to the cost incurred by the work. In efforts to explain the relationship over time, they use the below graph:

If you’re not into graphs, that fine. The main point of showing this is to illustrate the authors’ point: “Performance increases over time for most tasks, but at a decreasing rate. The longer one works at something, the better the final product, but the first hour accomplishes more than the tenth hour. Productivity is highest when work begins, and decreases with time.” As you allocate more work hours to a given task you are spending time/money to get results that move your team toward a given goal.

Ultimately, using time pressure (setting deadlines) must seek to maximize utility and ensure that we aren’t wasting time, energy, and money by over extending how much time we use on a given project. I drew a red line on the above graph to represent the ideal time to set a deadline (this notional “ideal time” for a deadline would change based on the project).

In the execution of your work, you are never going to know precisely how long a given task or project will take. As a result, I recommend that you use the following practices when choosing when to set deadlines for a project:

  1. Consult with the people who will be executing the project. As the manager, you likely won’t be the one doing the work. You will have people who work on your team who have subject matter expertise or special skills who will do the physical or mental leg work. Ask them how long it will take them to complete the project or ask how soon they could complete the project while considering what they currently have in their work que.
  2. Consult with past records for similar projects. In many of my jobs, similar projects will pop up again and again. Retain records from each of your jobs and refine the process you and your team used last time for a similar project.
  3. For larger projects, I recommend conducting an initial, middle, and final planning meeting to brainstorm requirements, assumptions, and actions to be conducted. At each iteration of planning, you check the status of the work steps. People have a tendency to wait until the deadline to complete the work, so setting incremental checks helps to ensure that your team doesn’t put off important work until the last minute.
  4. A final consideration for planning and setting deadlines when reporting to your senior, is knowing your time minimums. What is the minimum amount of time needed to complete a given type of project? I recommend setting a minimum allowable notice for certain types of projects that, if done wrong, can result in personnel injury, damage to equipment, or significant financial loss. Again consult your subject matter experts to figure out how much time they minimally need to complete a project safely. As we saw in the study with the seminaries, rushing a project can inhibit our people’s decision making.

Share your thoughts in the comments!

3 thoughts on “How to Effectively Set Deadlines, While Avoiding the Negative Impacts of Time Pressure

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