Why Short Timelines Work

We all know that people will procrastinate if they have an undesirable task to do. We’ll find anything else to do than work on something that seems impossible or doesn’t make us feel good. The reason why we think that we can procrastinate is that we don’t see an immediate consequence to putting off the work until later. The imminent bad result is the reason that people will finally rush to finish work just before the deadline.

Did you know that people also procrastinate when there is a good outcome on the other end of their work? A journal article called Procrastination of Enjoyable Experiences by Suzanne B. Shu and Ayelet Gneezy in the Journal of Marketing Research shows that people will procrastinate on work that will give them a positive feeling if it seems that they have unlimited time. In their study, the researchers handed out vouchers that could be redeemed for coffee and cake at a bakery. The participants were either given a coupon that could be redeemed in sixty days or twenty-one days. Even though more people chose the 60-day coupons, the 21-day coupons were redeemed more often. In the end, the coupon that created the most urgency was the one that was used most often.

Understanding that tight timelines will help people complete their work better can help us as we design our project plans. One of the reasons that the Agile methodology works is that Agile creates an urgency to complete the work set out every sprint. Someone working on an agile project cannot think that they will put the task off until a date in the far future because they will be held accountable at the next retrospective.

It isn’t good to create a sense of urgency for the sake of inspiring people to work harder. If you do this, everyone’s work will result in burnout. What may be helpful is only to outline immediate tasks and work for people. That way, they don’t have to worry about the distant future, and they can feel that the urgency to complete these tasks before they move onto the next one.

Don’t assign tasks too far into the future. Have a project vision, but give people the assignments that they must get done right now. Once those assignments are done on time, you can talk about the next thing.