Nov 152011
Unrealistic Deadlines

Image by NASA via

Unrealistic Deadlines – If You Really Want To Get Something Done

Let’s assume for a minute that you have a task you want to get done.  What is the most important step you can take to ensure you will get it done?  Set an unrealistic deadline and make sure there are consequences for not hitting it.

These days no one has time for anything.  You have to make time for those tasks that are most important.  How do you decide what to make time for?  You must prioritize, based on which tasks you think will make important contributions toward accomplishing your goals.  If you have not set goals, that’s another discussion.

Let’s think for a moment about how we as people without any extra time actually get anything done.  It’s useful to invoke a well-known example of extraordinary accomplishment, so we can learn from what drove the success in accomplishing the seemingly impossible.

Let’s look at the incredible story of Apollo 13.  Most have seen the movie or read the book.  Who can forget the horror when an oxygen tank exploded two days into the journey to the moon and caused numerous, some would say insurmountable, mechanical problems?  The explosion forced the crew to abort its lunar landing mission and try to find a safe way back to earth with the help of mission control.  The team encountered numerous deadlines and tight windows, based on the physical realities of trying to return the craft and its crew safely to earth.  Realities such as the need to jury-rig a repair to the failed carbon dioxide removal system made these deadlines life or death.  The composure of the crew and mission control and their ultimate success in returning the crew safely to earth were due to exceptional training and preparation, as well as the focus brought on by the reality that “failure was not an option”.

One of the challenges that we face in our day-to-day lives is that almost no one is regularly facing unrealistic deadlines and life-or-death realities such as those faced on the Apollo 13 mission.  Many of the realities confronted on that mission only occur for a very small percentage of the population, and even for them, only on a very infrequent basis.  So how do we summon the energy and focus that are unavoidable in an Apollo 13 scenario, but often nowhere to be found in the comparably ho-hum mundane activities of everyday life?

First, we must make sure that we have well-defined goals that actually matter to us.  They need to be our goals for ourselves and we must be passionate about them.  If they are someone else’s goals for us, or if they are goals that don’t get us fired up, we may be able to stay enthusiastic for a while, but typically that enthusiasm will not be sustainable.

Second, we must understand how to set our goals so we will achieve them.  The most useful construct for this that I have found and employed for myself and with clients is the S.M.A.R.T. approach.  That is, the goals must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-sensitive.  I have written in detail elsewhere about the S.M.A.R.T. approach, but the focus here is on the time-sensitive aspect – the “unrealistic” deadline.  In my experience, even if you get the other four pieces correct, if you don’t set a deadline and preferably one that motivates immediate and sustained action, the odds of accomplishing your goals diminish significantly.

Third, if we have the courage, we should make the deadline “unrealistic”.  In the case of Apollo 13, they had an unrealistic deadline thrust upon them.  They had no choice, it was either meet the deadlines and time-windows that they confronted, or the goal to bring the crew home safely would fail.  Even if the unrealistic deadlines are not thrust upon us though, we can choose to put them in place.  I have found that when you do this, it tends to galvanize the team, or even your own effort, if you’re working solo, and extraordinary achievements start to happen.  Instead of thinking about why something can’t be done and spending energy on coming up with excuses, all energy is focused on finding a solution, ASAP.

Fourth, make sure there are consequences for failure.  Again, in the case of the Apollo 13 mission, the consequences were clear and they were dramatic; failure meant the death of the crew and a major disaster for NASA.  Most of us are not facing such dramatic consequences in our day-to-day lives, but it is still possible to put into place meaningful consequences if deadlines are not met.  This again can help to increase focus and galvanize the efforts of those involved.

Finally, it helps to have a common enemy, and if one doesn’t exist, create one.  In the case of Apollo 13, the common enemy was lack of breathable air and potable water, among several other things.  In the case of the Manhattan Project, there was the prospect of Hitler and other malevolent forces running the world and wreaking massive destruction at will.  While the enemies we face may not be as drastic, they’re out there and history has proven that most teams and individual achievers can accomplish extraordinary things in the face of a common enemy.

So, do yourself a favor and make sure you set deadlines that you are not just interested in, but committed to meeting.  Make those deadlines aggressive, perhaps even unrealistic, and you are likely to see your accomplishments move from ordinary to extraordinary.  For achievers, unrealistic deadlines are friend, not foe.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin

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  • Amy @ Grace and Flowers

    I find this interesting…I know for myself I walk a fine line between completely stressing out over having enough time to get something done and allowing myself too much during which I waste a lot of it. Maybe I’ll try this on whatever my next goal is.

  • I did a lot of research years ago on the impact of project completion estimates generated by CPM software and the interaction between management and staff performing work.

    When a project started to run late, the usual scenario was the ‘float’ would go from positive to negative and management would intervene. The usual outcome was the forward durations and sometimes project logic would be changed to show on-time arrival.

    The problem, of course, was that overly optimistic projections would be unrealizable.

    We were able to show that by projecting the erosion of ‘float’ curve you could predict project completion.

    On a graph, you would see a downward trend followed by a correction that gave an illusion that the problem(s) had been ‘fixed’.

    Over time, the newly gained ‘float’ would erode and you would end up intersecting your projection on or about the actual project completion time.

  • Knikkolette

    Paul, I love the way you turned something as mundane as setting goals and compared it to a story almost everyone is aware of and related it. Your story made this subject more exciting and now I actually want to write my own goals. It’s funny how we help others do things such as set strategies and goals, yet don’t do them for ourselves? (I’ve turned into my father who was an electrician/plumber… our leaky faucet was always the last to get repaired!.) Excellent post Paul!

  • Thanks, Knikkolette. Yes, goal-setting can be mundane and boring, however I find it’s often the missing link for those who don’t achieve the success they’re seeking versus those who do. I agree with your point about the classic “cobbler’s son has no shoes” scenario. Sometimes we’re so busy helping others that we overlook our own issues in the same areas.

  • Thanks, Karl. I see your point. Just like lying with statistics is quite easy, it’s possible to deceive yourself and management by playing around with the ‘float curve’. In my business, I work with a lot of entrepreneurs and companies that have a hard time getting started on projects, due to a variety of factors, most often procrastination brought on by fear of failure. The idea of the “unrealistic deadline” is to create a compelling reason to get moving and get focused. Obviously it’s an artificial construct and a tool, more than anything, as the “real deal” unrealistic deadlines like those cited in the article (Apollo 13 and the Manhattan Project), thankfully, come up infrequently.

  • Thanks, Amy. If you find yourself procrastinating on a project or goal, try setting an unrealistic deadline. I think you’ll be amazed how it gets you moving and focused. Granted, sometimes it can bring on stress, but if you become accustomed to it, you’ll experience a bit less stress going forward. In any case, a bit of nervous energy, as long as it’s not excessive, usually helps us concentrate our efforts.

  • Ryan Williams

    Hey Paul,

    Like Apollo 13, where “failure was not an option” – I’m carrying this one around with me this week.

  • Sounds good, Ryan. I find that unrealistic deadlines can really help overcome the procrastination challenge that so many face. Once that deadline is in place, energy and focus increase and somehow, seemingly magically, the task gets done.

  • Paul, very good article. In few step you let us understand how to set goals and manage a plan. Again the keyword is COMMITMENT, which is appropriate. I know so many case where people just involved made plan unrealistic which failed. thanks for the post.

  • Jayna Locke

    GREAT post, Paul, and I am thrilled to be reading this right now because I have set a completely unrealistic goal for myself to complete a book by the end of the year, and I have been kicking myself and wondering if I have set myself up for failure. But now, after reading your post I actually see the value of the self-imposed deadline, and have decided to adopt the mantra “failure is not an option.”

    I love the way you brought goal setting to life with the Apollo 13 story. Most deadlines, as you say, are not life and death. But giving yourself a sense of urgency can get things done and help catapult you forward. The alternative is what I like to call “Someday Isle.”

  • Thanks, Fabrizio. I have found that setting “unrealistic deadlines” can be very helpful. I agree with you that the real key, at the end of the day, is commitment. Those how are interested will accomplish only a small fraction of that accomplished by those who are committed.

  • Exactly, Jayna. Happy to hear that the post inspired you and made you realize that the aggressive goal you set for yourself is a positive, not a negative. I like to say that if you aim high and hit medium, you’re still better of than if you aim low and hit low. Also, I like your “Someday Isle” metaphor. There are tons of people and projects and accomplishments trapped on that isle!

  • Sherry Nouraini

    What a great article, and I love your example. I am so fascinated by the Apollo13 story. You know, the technique you are suggesting can find support in how Steve Jobs got work done. It has been said that he had a distorted sense of reality and would put deadlines on projects that would seem unattainable, but then he was able to get people to get them done by the deadline. This is probably one of his secrets for being so extraordinary. Really enjoyed reading this, thank you!

  • Thanks, Sherry. I think it is a technique of many great managers and leaders. Even if it’s not done by explicitly setting “unrealistic deadlines,” the expectations for performance are extremely high in any case, thus necessitating maximum focus and energy to succeed. I’ve been using it more and more as a tool to combat procrastination and it’s been working very well.

  • A great reminder for us all Paul. I love the point about being very clear about the consequences should you NOT achieve your deadlines. This is something that is not often considered and for those people who are motivated more by this approach (away from), this would certainly give them a push along.

    Great post!

  • Wendy Cassera

    A Fabulous article!! Goal setting is so important and you are so right when you say that it is important not only to set attainable goals that you are committed to. Thanks for the food for thought!

  • Thanks, Annemarie. In my experience, far more people are more motivated by fear of consequences (“away from”) than by seeking pleasure or “toward”. Also, the motivation, again, in my experience, provided by fear typically is quite a bit stronger than the “going towards” motivation. This is not always the case of course, but in everything I’ve seen and experienced personally, fear tends to tap more emotions that lead to action. That being the case, I agree that consequences for not hitting a deadline can be a powerful motivator. Everyone’s a bit different, without a doubt, but this approach tends to work quite while.

  • Thanks, Wendy. Yes, commitment is very important. It’s usually possible to accomplish much more when you are committed, rather than just interested. I find that setting “unrealistic deadlines” demands concentration and focus on how to make something happen, rather than coming up with a bunch of excuses about why it’s not possible.

  • Interesting take, Paul. I have to admit that would never be a strategy I’d employ. Then again, I work for myself, but I only did it once ever when I was a manager.

    The thing at that point was that if we didn’t hit a certain goal by a certain date I’d lose my job and most of the people working for me would lose their jobs as well. It seemed unrealistic at the time but I went to the people in my department, laid it out, and asked if we take our shot at it or go ahead and lose our jobs; truthfully I was ready to go. They said they wanted to take a shot at it and I was given some outside resources so we undertook the project and got within one point of where we needed to be; that was good enough.

    Unfortunately, 6 months later we all lost our jobs anyway as they moved the entire department to another city. Made all of us feel used and lied to, and I swore I’d never let that kind of thing happen again. So, I guess I have a bad taste in my mouth from the experience even after 10 years.

  • Thanks, Mitch. I’d agree that this approach is not applicable or advisable in every circumstance, however I’ve found that “unrealistic deadlines” can be helpful to overcome procrastination and get people “off the dime”. The situation you mention above sounds unfortunate and I can fully understand how it left a bad taste in your mouth, but I still think this approach works well in certain applications. It’s worked well for me on several occasions and I’ve seen a few clients benefit from it as well. It does not guarantee success, that’s for sure, but it tends to bring a lot of focus and energy to the situation, which is often lacking in the absence of attention-getting deadlines. Paul

  • The Who

    Found it very motivating

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