“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing noise they make as they fly by.”
Douglas Adams heard a lot of whooshing in the course of turning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into a cult phenomenon. It started as a radio program, became a book (ultimately a six book trilogy), a TV series, a video game and most recently a movie. It might actually have been made into a film before Adams’ untimely death had it not been for his highly refined skill of procrastination. In fact, it’s startling than one so creatively prolific had to almost be forced to produce. At one point, his editors resorted to locking him in a hotel room for three weeks just to get him to complete a project. And you thought you had problems getting folks to meet their deadlines!
What is it about deadlines that make even the most stable among us recoil in horror and begin plotting subversive campaigns of résistance? Perhaps it’s because the dark origins of the term itself are rooted deeply in our psyche. The word was coined at the Andersonville military prison during the Civil War. Prison guards drew a line roughly seventeen feet around the interior wall of the compound. Any prisoner crossing that line was assumed to be escaping and would be shot dead. This was a literal dead line.
A more benign understanding of the term crept into our language during the 1920’s. Newspaper editors began using the word to indicate the latest possible time copy could be submitted in order to meet a press run. The expression gained quick popularity and soon students, workers and folks in general had to face the dreaded deadline.
While we may not like deadlines, they’re really pretty helpful tools and something that every leader should use. One of the best reasons for using deadlines is that they establish clarity between the person making an assignment and the one receiving it. Almost everyone has had the unhappy experience of discovering that when the Boss said, “Get to it when you can,” they actually meant “get to it now!” A deadline takes the mystery out such individual expectations. In the same spirit, deadlines help you set priorities. Even in an age where everything is a priority, reason must sometimes prevail (at least in theory). A deadline provides a legitimate negotiating point—“if I accept this deadline, this other one will have to slip; which will it be?” Finally, deadlines establish accountability. It’s simply one of life’s truisms, that when someone is held accountable, things tend to get done. When no one is accountable nothing gets done. It’s also true that being held accountable isn’t always comfortable. Maybe that’s why we don’t like deadlines.
Of course, none of this matters when you’re on the receiving end of a deadline you’d rather not meet. If it’s any consolation, just remember that even Superman (as Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent) had to endure the same tribulation despite his unique powers. So give them a chance. Perhaps, like Clark Kent, you’ll discover that deadlines don’t contain Green Kryptonite and unlike Douglas Adams, you won’t have to be locked in a hotel room to get your work done! —Ebert