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.
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