When I am delivering a workshop, I often ask the people in the room, “How many of you are procrastinators?” Sheepishly, three-quarters of the room will raise their hands. I tell them not to be embarrassed about it. Then I share that I am not a procrastinator but consider myself “deadline oriented.”
Invariably, this is met with confused looks. Deadline oriented? Isn’t that the same thing? What’s the difference? The difference is in the perception of who made the choice.
Innovation happens when creativity, deadlines, and out-of-the-box thinking collide. Deadlines inject creative tension: how am I going to get all of this work done within this finite amount of time? Often, I will inject deadlines to inspire those creative juices.
So why does procrastination (or being deadline oriented, as I like to say) work magnificently sometimes and fail miserably other times?
Well, there is something called the inverted U of optimal performance. This hypothesis states that performance improves with a certain amount of stress, but plummets with too little stress. Deadlines inject the stress, but if those deadlines are too close or the stakes too high they can inject so much stress that performance plummets. Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson also studied the relationship between arousal and performance. They found that increased arousal leads to better performance, but only up to a point; if there is too much arousal performance suffers. This is the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
So, there is a balance that must be struck. Being deadline-oriented only works if the stress is mid-level, rather than full-blown arousal. Here is a three-step strategy to help you navigate the waters of stress and optimal performance, and make you a better procrastinator:
- Know your commitments. Do an accurate assessment of what you are committed to, what your distractions are (i.e. urgent new requests from your boss), and what your boundaries are (i.e. picking up children by 5:30pm).
- Assess your schedule. Look ahead to create space to work. And work wisely. Experts tell us our brains are at their cognitive best when we work in 90-minute chunks of time, then taking a 10-minute break to go and do something completely different.
- Create deadlines. Once you have assessed your commitments and assessed your schedule, you can set deadlines. Be realistic. Give yourself enough time, but not too much time. You want that perfect level of stress for optimal performance.
What does this look like in practice? At the end of coaching conversations, clients share what they are committed to doing before our next conversation. And I will often offer to share forward resources and personal experience. Based on my own commitments and schedule, I will create an artificial deadline to accelerate my response and ensure that I am clearing my commitments to be most effective.
Remember: a little stress is good, but too much can ruin performance. The power of deadlines will be mitigated if you are unable to achieve the optimal level of stress to be most productive.