An editor’s strange love: Or how I learned to stop worrying about deadlines

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

I maintain a real hate-love relationship with deadlines. How about you?

I list hate before love because that’s the chronological order in which I encounter these alternating emotions. I absolutely loathe deadlines the nearer they approach, but then grudgingly appreciate their value once they’ve whizzed past.

Those who write for a living or are masochistic enough to do so for pleasure will recognize the corollary: There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having written. You endure the process, then savor the accomplishment afterward. Ernest Hemingway once said writing’s easy — all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. These days it would be a computer, but the sentiment remains the same.

I suspect it’s a similar experience for any challenging endeavor. Climbing mountains. Running marathons. I’ve watched and winced over the past six months as my youngest son, Alex, has studied for and taken the succession of examinations he’s required to pass to become a certified public accountant. Audits and regulations and taxes, oh my. That’s suffering. God willing, the reward will be commensurate.

In his 1962 speech at Rice University in Houston announcing plans to put a man on the moon, John Kennedy asked about an equally audacious undertaking: Why does Rice play Texas? College football fans know the president was talking about the series between Rice and the University of Texas, one long dominated by the Longhorns. The answer, Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Admirably so. But deadlines make things hard. At best harder. At worst nearly impossible.

Let’s do the math. Let’s say you’ve got X number of things to accomplish over Y amount of time. As X increases and Y decreases, the resulting ratio equals consternation.

If we had all the time in the world to complete a task, work wouldn’t be all that difficult, would it? Even the most leisurely pace would suffice. We’d get around to it eventually, right? What’s the big hurry? Of course, that sort of scenario doesn’t exist in reality. And here’s the other thing: Whenever there’s ample time, procrastination can’t be far behind.

That’s why deadlines constitute not only a curse, but also a blessing. Deadlines force us to set priorities. To focus our efforts. To get up and do what needs to be done. There’s an unmistakable difference in urgency.

While I repeatedly admonish myself to get my butt in gear, I seldom engage any machinery — until deadline nears, that is. To further mix metaphors, there’s nothing quite like the blade of a guillotine suspended overhead to command your undivided attention.

Journalists — newspaper editors in particular — love to whine about deadlines and the pressures they bring to bear. As if this very column wasn’t evidence enough, I confess I’m no less guilty.

But as anyone who’s ever owned or managed a business also can testify, deadlines constitute a fact of life whether they’re dictated by customers or circumstances or self-imposed.

For sure, reasons abound to hate deadlines and especially the stress they induce in meeting them. But there are just as many reasons to love deadlines — to embrace them, in fact. A few come to mind:

Deadlines drive innovation and creativity. Necessity, the adage goes, is the mother of invention. Faced with the necessity to meet deadlines, people become pretty inventive. That could include everything from changing a process to finding time-saving shortcuts to better marshalling resources to deliver the best possible result given the constraints.

Deadlines require the most important work. Pressed for time, most people pursue only those tasks that move them toward their goals and jettison the rest. That means ignoring emails and smartphones and saying no to extraneous responsibilities. That also can mean abandoning the pursuit of perfection that too often becomes the enemy of good. Shakespeare was right: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”

Deadlines promote good habits. In enduring the work required to meet deadlines and then achieving success, three things happen. People realize they can do it. They gain confidence they can do it again. They aspire to do it even better. The process becomes habit-forming and, eventually, standard operating procedure.

Deadlines don’t constitute a panacea, especially when they’re unreasonable or other factors make then unattainable regardless of how much work goes into the effort. But generally speaking, setting deadlines increases the likelihood of success. And when that occurs, there’s no better feeling. Am I right?

That’s the paradox: You’ve got to hate deadlines. But you’ve also got to love them.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at phil@thebusinesstimes.com or 970-424-5133.