Characteristics of Deadlines

November 19, 2019

Deadlines can be really useful but they can also have a super negative impact. When people say “deadline” we often mean many different things. The first step to better using deadlines is to understand exactly what expectations you are trying to set.

Characteristics of Deadlines

Here are some of characteristics that you should be purposefully deciding on when creating deadlines.

1. Artificial vs Real

Deadlines can be made up (and for useful reasons sometimes) to set milestones that you hope to reach and to help you feel a sense of progress. They can also be based on real dates that have a big impact if missed, for example if you need to complete a demo for a presentation at your industry’s biggest conference. The easiest way to understand the difference is by analysing the cost of delay, or how hard or soft the date is. In other words, if you can move the deadline by x weeks and it has a low cost then it is probably artificial.

2. Top-down vs Bottom-up

Where and who sets deadlines can vary. Top down refers to when dates are set by management or even c level people. Bottom up refers to when teams or individuals themselves set targets themselves. On it’s own, this can have a big impact on the percieved seriousness of the deadline and likely how much it helps/hurts people’s motivation.

3. Human estimation vs Data based

Aside from dates being decided out of thin air, they can either be based on estimations or by historical data. Estimations use best guesses, and while it can be optimised, it is based on human judgement. Data based means using historical data to project the likeliness of work being completed by a specific date. For example, if it always takes you 2 weeks to complete a new logo design, you can safely give youself a two week deadline to create the next one.

4. High level vs Low level

Deadlines are always based on an estimation of some kind (human or otherwise). To reduce the risk, or accuracy, of a reaching a deadline you need to purposefully decide how much info you want to take into account. A high level estimate would be quick and easy, but you might only discover big blockers or unrealistic aspects of the work half way through. A low level estimate would take into account all the task level details before committing to a date. There is no right and wrong, and the level at which you estimate should be based on the nature of the project. If the date does not represent the end of the world, you can purposefully take a less detailed approach, as long as that expectation is shared and clear.

Understand the “why”

Deadlines have pros and cons. Make sure you are purposeful when you use or set deadlines. Here are some that you may or may not have thought of before:


  1. Visibile and strucutred progress
  2. “Healthy” sense of urgency
  3. Accountability for delivery
  4. Useful trigger to manage scope


  1. Added pressure
  2. Easy to create unfair expectations
  3. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” - Parkinson’s law
  4. Distant deadlines means more time which can lead to over engineered solutions.
  5. Slippery slope in creating unsustainable working practices (ie. burn out, overtime, shortcuts, short term tunnel vision)

All in all…

Deadlines can be great and they can suck. Being purposeful of the kind of deadline you are looking to create, while taking time to understand the bigger impact and ensuring everyone involved shares those expectations can help you use them more effectively.


comments powered by Disqus