If you need a task at work done soon, setting a deadline may actually backfire, new study suggests

"It is not surprising that the longer deadline condition had the lowest response rate."


If you're delegating tasks with a time constraint to co-workers and direct reports, setting a deadline is often thought to be the right idea. It lets the other person know the task is urgent and exactly when the work needs to be completed.

However, setting that deadline might have the opposite of the intended effect, according to a new study by the University of Otago.

In the study, about 3,200 participants were asked to fill out a survey about donating to a charity. One-third were given no deadline by which they had to answer to the survey, one-third were given one week, and one-third were given one month. The group with no deadline had the highest rate of response, followed by the group that was given one week. The group given the one-month deadline had the lowest rate of response.

These results could apply to many situations, says Stephen Knowles, a professor at the Otago Business School and co-author of the study. For example, if you're sharing a task with a co-worker and need them to complete their part, they may be most likely to do so if they are not given a deadline at all. If you do set a deadline, it could help to make it soon and ask for a quicker turnaround.

Why setting a one-month deadline might not work

If you set a deadline too far into the future, people might not see the task as urgent, says Raquel Benbunan-Fich, a professor of information systems at Baruch College who specializes in user behavior and multitasking. "It is not surprising that the longer deadline condition had the lowest response rate," she says.

People tend to take as much time as they are allowed when it comes to completing tasks, she says, pointing to Parkinson's Law, or the idea that work will take the amount of time it's allotted. If you need a co-worker to send an email and you give them a week to do so, they will likely take the entire week, even if sending the email takes 15 minutes.

Upcoming deadline? Provide 'the other person with some context'

It helps to tell a co-worker or a direct report why, if you need them to complete a task sooner rather than later, says Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopResume. "Preface your request by providing the other person with some context so they appreciate why the task is so time-sensitive," she says.

If you can explain who will benefit from the task getting done quickly, "it can drive motivation and increase the urgency of your request," she says.

Preface your request by providing the other person with some context, so they appreciate why the task is so time-sensitive.
Amanda Augustine
career expert at TopResume

If the person doesn't seem like they can complete the task for a while, don't get frustrated. Instead, have a conversation that can help get to the root of the hold up.

"Probe further to understand what other items are on that person's plate, what obstacles might be in the way, and whether you can help to delegate these tasks to others so the individual can focus on completing your request quickly," she says. "Alternatively, you might be able to take something off that person's to-do list so they can work on your request sooner."

Send reminders, and let people know why a task matters

If you do set a deadline for a task, specifically a longer one, be sure to send reminders, Benbunan-Fich says. You can schedule emails ahead of time so they go out a week or a day before a task needs to be done.

So, for example, if you know a co-worker or a direct report is a bit of a procrastinator, give them a deadline that is a couple days before you need the task done, she suggests. When Benbunan-Fich is given a deadline, she "self-imposes a soft deadline" a few days earlier. This way, she pads in extra time should something go wrong when she is trying to complete a task.

Self-imposed deadlines are harder to follow than ones given by others, research has found. But if you vocalize your deadline and give yourself a realistic window of time to complete a task, you have a better chance of sticking to it.

Communicating the urgency and importance of the task to others, and to yourself, is key. In this study, she says, participants might not have responded because "the study was low-stakes," she says. Whether or not they got their answers in about donating to charity would have no impact on their job.

"Arguably, in the presence of reminders or high-stakes tasks, the possibility of forgetting about a task should be lower," she says.

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