Deadlines and Commitments: Productivity hacks

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
6 min read

I embrace them as a productivity hack. Deadlines and commitments make us productive by forcing us to focus and shelve all the really interesting distractions that keep us from completing our appointed tasks. If you want to get more done, commit to something with a deadline and consequences to not finishing. The consequences can be embarrassment, humiliation, monetary loss, a law suit, or anything else that feels uncomfortable.

What you leave in and what you leave out. Deadlines can be really useful in pushing us to achieve our goals, if the commitment isn’t a bridge too far and is challenging but sensible and achievable. The required work needs to be in the sweet spot of challenging enough that we aren’t bored and easy enough that you don’t panic and stress.

Flow Channel

Flow state hackers call that Goldilocks state the flow channel, just the right amount of stress to be motivating and attention focusing. Make your commitments fit your flow channel.

The key is to eliminate distractions like checking social media and email. Every time you get distracted it can take twenty minutes to get back in flow. Shut off your phone and stay in the zone.

Doc Johnson

This is an extreme way to clarify the mind; for a fortnight. Dr. Johnson makes a good point but it doesn’t just pertain to the big deadline and the permanent vacation.

The prospect of confronting the finality of death does help us think more clearly about our priorities and what we would like to achieve and be known for. For the thoughtful contemporary poet and philosopher of life Mark Nepo, the catalytic experience that informs his deepened writings and ideas came from having, and surviving, cancer.

An experience like that peals away all the layers of superficiality and distractions. As Gandhi said:

we should live each day as though it were our last, and learn each day as though we will live forever.

I wonder why the call them deadlines.

It has a gallows connotation. They could also be considered lifelines as they create a sense of urgency to complete a deliverable or meet a milestone. We don’t have the luxury to dawdle and waste time trying to make something perfect. Perfection is not achievable and a completed good enough is what we are after.

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.

Deadlines can help us work smart and efficient. I have found that deadlines and commitments focus the mind and discipline my thinking to jettison superfluous tasks and focus on the 20 percent that will provide the biggest results.

We need to be creative and make short cuts to get it done on time. The only other thing as powerful in creating efficient work flows and work product is laziness. Being lazy means finding the quickest and easiest way to get things done.

the inventor of Linus and Github

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s law is the adage that:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Deadlines help us combat the urge to fill more time than is necessary to complete a task. Committing to deadlines helps us deal with Parkinson’s law.

If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

Student Syndrome

Student syndrome describes planned procrastination. A student will only begin to apply themselves to an assignment at the last possible moment before its deadline. Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter writing that term paper knows.

This behavior eliminates any safety margins and puts the person under stress and pressure. It is done in order to induce a level of urgency high enough to jump-start the effort necessary to undertake the task.

The stress and pressure are usually so distasteful, that next time the student puts it off again dreading the stress. Start early and often and avoid this chronic loop of dysfunctional behavior.

Or you can follow Twain’s advice:

Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow.

- Mark Twain

Purposeful Repurposing

There is lots that can be produced and achieved by repurposing past projects in creative ways.

Pick projects to commit to with a time sensitive sense of urgency that involve reassembling work product you have already done with a small amount of additional novel work thrown in.

Commit to doing a presentation or some other deliverable or create an artificial deadline for something you really want to achieve.

Impose a penalty or reward if you complete it on time.

Divide these into micro projects with deliverables and rewards that add up to a big meaningful goal.

Pick something you have been putting off and start today. I’m your biggest fan and cheerleader!


“What is urgent is seldom important and what is important is seldom urgent.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Triage is a medical term for assigning degrees of urgency to injuries and illnesses. Its a technique used in emergency rooms and battlefield hospitals to make sure the most in need get care the quickest. In many cases time can be of the essence.


We want to determine the order for dealing with tasks according to their relative importance. Its sequencing first things first.

In many cases our brains fool us by conflating urgency and importance and we end up doing minor tasks that seem urgent but are of little long range importance. And we allow the important life changing projects to languish. This is a form of procrastination.

Eisenhower Box

Here is a great tool for organizing tasks and projects along two dimensions: urgency and importance. This is the third of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This is a book very much well worth reading and referring to.

Put first things first

This 2X2 matrix will help keep you focused on what most needs your attention. Eyes on the Prize.

If integrity is about doing what you say, this box will help you prioritize what you say and what you do.

A Little Patience

It is critical to have patience with progress and not set overly optimistic timeframes for achieving ambitious goals. Small progress adds up, flake on flake, like snow.

This is from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezo’s recent annual letter to shareholders

Perfect Handstands: “A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. … In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. … ‘The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.’ Unrealistic beliefs … kill high standards.”

Don’t be impatient. Love the process. Its about the journey not the destination. If you are pursuing it, you already embody it.

We are what we seek.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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