Pretty image
Deadlines cause cognitive shutdown. But without a deadline, activities drag on forever. What to do?

A hard deadline means no more excuses, no more options, no second chances. It’s literally now or never.

Of course, deadlines don’t usually work that way. That’s the part of the threat of a deadline, and after the deadline passes, threats usually escalate. The stakes get higher; consequences and punishments more severe. You’re not off the hook—the deadline just hangs around your neck like a millstone that keeps growing and getting heavier.

Hard deadlines, with their attendant fearsome consequences, can shut your brain down as the deadline looms, and leave you with reduced cognitive function for up to two days after the event.

The Panicked Samaritan

What happens to your ability to observe, to problem-solve, even to think clearly when faced with time pressure?

Researchers have devised a number of experiments to show how your performance degrades under pressure, the most well-known being the “Good Samaritan Experiment.” (“From Jerusalem to Jericho: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior,” Darley, J. M. and Batson, C. D., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Number 27, 1973.)

In this experiment, you start with a group of seminary students on the day of the Good Samaritan lecture. Against this backdrop of being good stewards of the earth and helping and serving your fellow man, the researchers set up an encounter. They took one set of students and explained to them that they had a critical meeting with the dean of their school right after the lecture. It was across campus, and they could not be late—their future careers depended on it. They then arranged to position an accomplice, dressed and acting as a homeless beggar, right in their path to the dean’s office.

Sad but true, these devout students, under the pressure of an important meeting, practically walked on the beggar’s head in their mad rush to get to the appointment. They ignored his cries, and rushed past—ignoring everything they just heard in the lecture.

But a second group was told they had that same crucial meeting, only they were given some spare time between events—they weren’t in a rush. The students in this second group stopped to help the beggar; they took him to the infirmary, cleaned him up, and so on. Seems this group was able to think more clearly.

Time pressure hurts your creativity and problem-solving abilities as well. Dr. Teresa Amabile at Harvard worked on a ten-year study on creativity in the workplace, and one of the things she and colleagues discovered was that you are the least creative when you feel time pressure. In fact, it’s even worse than that. Not only are you less creative when battling the clock, but there’s a sort of after-effect: a time pressure “hangover.” Your creativity suffers on the day you’re under the gun and remains depressed for the next two days as well. (Cited in “The 6 Myths of Creativity,” Bill Breen, Fast Company, Dec 19 2008.)

That’s why it’s a good idea to end a project iteration on a Friday. That’s why you really do need some down-time after an unscheduled, panicked time-crunch.

When your mind is pressured, it actively begins shutting things down. Your vision narrows—literally as well as figuratively. You no longer consider options. It would seem that deadlines, in general, are very bad for your cognitive processing.

Timeboxing

On the other hand, there’s the very useful, very popular agile notion of timeboxing. We love to timebox everything we can, from iterations to meetings.

A fixed, limited amount of time for an iteration (or a meeting, for that matter) helps everyone to focus. You become aware that you don’t have all day to waste, that you need to make the hard decisions now, ship something useful, and get on with it. This is really helpful in software development, because we developers have a marked tendency to take as much time as is allocated, and then some. (We also tend to fill up any available disk drive like so much closet space, but that’s a topic for another time).

In an agile iteration, we like to slip features, not the date (see this month’s “Way of the Agile Warrior”). So the date is a hard deadline, but the consequences are manageable: if you were trying to deliver five features, and one of them is not ready, it slips to the next iteration. The good news: you successfully delivered four things. The acceptable news: the thing that slipped will be delivered in a known, fixed time frame.

In agile timeboxing, the deadline is hard; it’s not subject to being moved around and slipped on a whim. But at the same time, it should not instill a brain-damaging panic. The difference is in perception and management of the consequences of missing the deadline.

For a deadline to be psychically damaging, it has to cause undue pressure and stress; fear of the severe consequences (be they real or imagined) shuts down higher-order processing in your brain, so you can be ready for a rapid physical response. Well, that would have worked great in our not-so-distant anthropological past, but in the modern office environment it’s an unhelpful response.

The trick in creating a useful deadline is to make the consequences more realistic and less of an all-or-nothing affair. Agile development is all about taking small bites and avoiding big, dramatic events, from weeks-long requirements meetings to insufferable integration phases to the oft-dreaded and more often skipped Big Testing at the end of the project. Instead of relying on large episodic events, agile development tries to spread the risk out a bit, and is made up of a nearly continuous stream of small events.

An agile deadline works the same way. You could have one massive deadline at the end of the project; the consequences are huge, and include your job, your boss’s job, and the fate of the company and your 401k. Or, you could have more frequent deadlines where the consequences of missing the deadline aren’t professionally fatal, but instead include adjusting resources and expectations, and actually help you become more accurate over time.

You need deadlines. If it weren’t for deadlines, nothing would get done. But be mindful of the consequences. If the consequences of missing the deadline are fearsome, then you can expect that your brains will start shutting down as the deadline approaches.

Something to think about.

Andy is a Pragmatic Programmer, author of a bunch of books, and dabbles in music and woodworking. Follow him on Twitter at @PragmaticAndy, at his blog andy.pragprog.com, or email him at andy@pragprog.com.

What’s a guru meditation? It’s an in-house joke from the early days of the Amiga computer and refers to an error message from the Amiga OS, baffling to ordinary users and meaningful only to the technically adept.

Send the editor your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.