Artificial deadlines for the win

When I’m under pressure I produce some of my best work. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the amount of pressure I’m under, and my ability to remove noise from my brain and see a clear path through to a desired end result. It is useful to understand this brain trait and apply it in scenarios when I might otherwise not be as focused as I would like.

So it made an awful lot of sense that I would thrive in a startup environment.  When I started my first business Atlas, a software house, I was under pressure to get everything done yesterday so that my co-founder and I could earn a living and stop eating into our modest savings. I was wearing dozens of hats including sales person, developer, bookkeeper, admin, and chief tea maker and I thrived.  When times got tough I simply increased the number of hours I worked in order to stay on top of everything but the focus was always there (note: I’m not saying I was working efficiently what with all the context switching, but I definitely made progress through brute force and determination).

Slowly, without noticing, the pressure and buzz of the startup that we had created started to subside, and I found myself being able to think and plan a month ahead, then three months ahead, and then a year ahead.  We hired staff to take the admin and minutiae of running the business away from me and slowly but surely the noise crept back in as the day to day pressure receded.  I effectively took the approach of firing myself from as many roles in the business as possible.  At the point where I was no longer permitted access to our source code repository I felt about as welcome as a hedgehog at a bouncy castle party, and started to miss the pressure that drove me forward in our earlier years.  It became harder to focus, and I could find myself leaving the office not feeling like I had achieved much at all.

Then a couple of  years ago on New Years Eve a friend of mine who had been thinking about moving back to Canada decided he could no longer put it off and booked one way tickets for July that year. He was committed, and had a fixed deadline of seven months that was an immovable object, and therefore all planning would have to work backwards from the date of the flight. I didn’t realise at the time but what he had done was created an artificial deadline which forced him to see something through.

I decided recently that this was a technique I could benefit from, and so created my own artificial deadline by booking flights to Barcelona (more on this here) where I would spend a month with my family living in a different city and remote working. Since setting this immovable date my output has increased exponentially. Now everything I do revolves around the deadline, and my focus is back as I ensure that the projects we’re working on and in particular my own products are in a state of readiness for my departure.

I think this is a useful technique to use, and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve leaving the country! For example, rather than spending the next few months working on that app in your spare time, how about booking a demonstration with some potential customers in 4 weeks’ time. You’ll be amazed how you can suddenly move mountains in order to ensure that you don’t embarrass yourself on the day.

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