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The Curse and the Blessing of Arbitrary Deadlines

The organization that I work for has a fiscal year. I dare say the organization that you work for has one too. For us, it runs from April 1st to March 31st.

Each year around March there’s a mad rush to get work items completed, closed out and signed off before March 31. Everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off, and this bothers me hugely. Why is this largely arbitrary line in the sand so important? Are our accounting practices so deficient that we can’t deal with a body of work that crosses this boundary? (Hint: no, they’re not). Nobody has ever been able to adequately explain it to me because, I suspect, there is no adequate answer.

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To add to my frustration with this situation, I have in the past experienced a distinct and noticeable lull in my workload in April. The nature of what I do is such that there’s often definition and even planning required of others before work lands on my plate, and if this effort doesn’t start until April 1st then I will have nothing to do until at least the middle of the month. So tell me again why I tore all my hair out trying to get everything I was working on complete by the end of March?

In fairness, I’m exaggerating the picture I’m painting here and in recent years my team especially and my organization generally have become much better at this. Nevertheless, it illustrates my point: arbitrary deadlines are very much a pet peeve of mine and you don’t just find them at year end, they’re everywhere – from the project completion date that was estimated before anybody understood the effort required but somehow became set in stone, to the two hour meeting that somehow fills exactly two hours even though, upon reflection, there was only 50 minutes of valuable content (that’s the opposite issue to the chicken-with-its-head-cut-off scenario, but the same root cause).

Thinking back over the past couple of days, however, it occurs to me that I may be a massive hypocrite.

I’ll be away from the office next week. Actually, I’ll be away beginning at about lunchtime tomorrow, but the specifics are unimportant and I digress.

Over the last couple of days I have been extraordinarily productive. Seriously, it’s been amazing. I have amazed myself. Things are getting completed, closed off and delivered all over the place. Why? Because there’s going to be a few days where I’m not around and I don’t want any of these little outstanding items to still be on my plate when I return or, worse, on my mind while I’m away? I’m pretty confident in saying that in the normal course of things, if I weren’t taking some time off, some of the smaller tasks would have sat languishing at the bottom of my to-do list until well beyond the date when I get back to the office. One or two of them, I suspect, I would quite literally never have been done – I’d have just sat on them until everyone else forgot that they were ever asked of me. So why, really, has the arbitrary deadline of tomorrow at noon become so critical to me? Don’t know. I can’t adequately explain it to you because, I suspect, there is no adequate answer.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts:

  1. Why am I apparently not capable of this week’s extraordinary levels of productivity in a more typical week, where I don’t have a looming arbitrary deadline to contend with? I actually have a theory. I’ll post about it soon (but not by any particular arbitrary date. I only commit to those in my professional life).
     
  2. I’ve sucked those around me into my arbitrary deadline world too. I don’t work alone, I have teams that I work with. If set myself an arbitrary deadline for a task, let’s call it a, then that means I need others’ input and contribution by a-2, or end of day a-1 at the absolute latest, please. And low, the circle of arbitrary deadlines becomes self-sustaining and spreads across the land.

I hope those affected by #2 are also congratulating themselves on this week’s extraordinary productivity, and I hope they enjoy the distinct and noticeable lull in activity while I’m away without questioning it too much. I hope they don’t take to the internet to bitch about it on their blog, but if they do choose that path then that’s OK. There’ll be no hypocrisy from me.

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