Deadlines Are Your Friend

As a student at Juilliard, most of my “studying” revolved around practicing for my weekly piano lesson – and with all day everyday to spend in the practice room, it was hard to maintain intense focus. When the day of my lesson rolled around though, guess what: I was suddenly able to shift into high gear, tune out the usual distractions (“Alex the cellist is practicing shirtless again?”) and get into a place of deep concentration. Three hours would fly by like that.

A sense of urgency is one of the most effective ways to get focused and engaged in what you’re doing — it helps you see more clearly what’s important and resist distraction.

It’s why, even now, I get my best practicing done in the half hour before 10:00 pm, when I have to follow good-neighbor etiquette and shut down the keyboard. Or why I get so much done in the 15 minutes before I leave the house for a meeting, or the day before I go on vacation.

Create Urgency

No looming deadline? It’s better to create a sense of urgency on your own than to procrastinate and wait for it to be imposed externally. Here’s how:

  • Use time as a tool. Instead of doing a task or activity for as long as it takes — decide upfront, before you start, how much time you’ll spend doing it. (I recently heard about a writer who charges his computer battery to 50%, goes to a cafe and leaves the charger at home when he needs to get some focused writing done.)
  • Build momentum. It’s hard to feel urgency when you know you’re going to be doing something for several hours — start with shorter periods of 15 – 30 minutes.
  • Set a challenge. Just like time limits make games fun, see how much you can get done in the allotted time. For example: “Let’s see how many emails I can answer in 15 minutes.” Or “How much of the proposal can I draft before my 10:30 meeting?”
  • Create scarcity. As human beings, we want something more when there isn’t enough of it. Limit how long you can do an activity and you increase its perceived value. When I’m preparing for a piano competition, for example, I break down a three-hour practice session into 30-minute segments, one piece per segment. When the 30 minutes is up, I have to move onto the next piece, whether I feel ready or not. Not only does this keep me focused, it makes me eager to continue where I left off in the next session.


  1. Betsy August 3, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you for the great insights into how to create imperative. For myself, I have found that looking at my life span as a countdown to my demise is a great way of creating imperative. Simon Sinek got me thinking along these lines in his talk about how we typically see our lives and how framing time in finite terms helps to create imperative.

    Since I started thinking this way, I have become more decisive about my future and my path forward. Taking a “wait and see” attitude has to have its boundaries – it certainly has its consequences.

    1. suyg August 3, 2011 at 4:23 pm

      Thank you for the valuable insight, Betsy. That sense of finiteness is definitely one of the benefits of getting older. “If I don’t do it now, then exactly when am I going to do it?!”

  2. John McCarthy August 3, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Great post,

    I had a couple other suggestions, seeing as how you asked.

    The first is that you need to focus on the most immediately doable aspect of the task, the next step if you will, because that is the only thing you can do in the present. When you start focusing on the whole, you introduce delay into the whole process. I can’t do the whole project right now, so I can’t finish right now. The reward will come later. If you focus on a part you can do right now, you actually have to choose to not do it. Choosing it becomes easier. You have less of an excuse.

    The other suggestion is to focus on the affective, or emotional part of the task as opposed to the logical, cognitive part. Based in two different parts of the brain, these two aspects have very different senses of time. The logical part lets you know all the options for what you could do next, but the older, emotional part of the brain is what makes you choose to do something now. Stack the deck in your favor by loading up on the positives for the choice that you know is the most productive one, and throw a few negatives on the other options.

    1. suyg August 12, 2011 at 3:41 am

      “When you start focusing on the whole, you introduce delay into the whole process.”

      What an insightful distinction, John. This is exactly what happens isn’t it. We have this illusion that we should be able to get the whole project done in one fell swoop. When has that ever happened?!

      Thanks for commenting!


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