It's not hard to see that deadlines are really critical for projects that involve many people. We need to coordinate our deliverables so that dependent work can be started on time. Not having deadlines would make coordination virtually impossible. But sometimes deadlines are set arbitrarily. In fact, many modern project management methods advocate the use of "time boxes" and force everyone to deliver a product by some specific point in time. Scrum is one those project management methods. At the end of each time boxed "sprint", a working (albeit, partial) product is delivered. Moreover, Scrum strongly advises teams to time box everything else too: meetings, daily scrums, reviews, planning sessions, and retrospectives.
As many of you know, I teach computer and information science at Northeastern University and every semester students ask for deadlines to be moved. So, the past two semesters I experimented with losing my strict deadlines -- I used to be a real stickler for them. But -- maybe I'm getting soft with age -- I allowed students to submit the work (assignments, blogs, and progress quizzes) whenever they have completed it. I provided "due dates" that help them plan their work, but their grades didn't suffer if they handed in their work past the due date. I wanted them to demonstrate what they know without undue time pressure. I figured that this would lead to better work, less stressed students, fewer complaints, and better grades.
Guess what? Turned out that grades were lower, students were more stressed, and the work was not as good. Why? For one, no strict deadlines encouraged procrastination. Students started their work late and many other tasks took precedence -- even going out, playing Xbox, and simply hanging out. In the past, when there was a deadline, some things, like socializing or playing video games, would get pushed back because work was due. Now, the work was no longer "primary" -- it took a backseat to most other things. Same happens at work: if there're no deadlines, work with less value suddenly takes precedence -- which is really a form of procrastination. That includes work like answering emails, responding to countless email threads, updating documents nobody reads, attending meetings, installing new tools or compilers, listening to YouTube videos, and the list goes on. Students also planned more -- they planned how to do a perfect job -- but they never got started. Again, planning is really a form of procrastination. There's no pressure to get started since there's no real deadline.
A few students commented that the lack of deadlines caused them a lot of stress -- they had to manage their time better and procrastination got the better of them -- they liked someone telling how to manage their time. It also gave them an out when asked to go out with their friends -- they could say "no" because they had work due. We do the same at work: we skip useless meetings when we have deadlines. Beyond that, they started the work late and then couldn't finish it by the time the course ended -- and the work was shoddy as it was done under significant time pressure.
So, deadlines really are an important time management and work planning tool. They force prioritization of work and constantly push less important work into the background while the more important tasks that are due soon get done. It's obvious to see why Scrum favors deadlines -- it forces teams to focus on value-added activities. And, of course, there's Parkinson Law which broadly advises us that work shrinks to fit the amount of time we have to complete it -- without deadlines, work doesn't need to shrink and we do more than we need to.
In summary, set realistic deadlines for all deliverables and adhere to them -- it helps you get more work done.
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