Should You Set Deadlines for Your Goals?

Say you have a personal goal: you want to build a business, lose weight or learn a language. Does it make more sense to set a deadline for that goal (i.e. I want to speak conversational French in 9 months) or should you ignore it?

I think this is an interesting question because, on the one hand, a deadline can motivate action. By knowing you need to accomplish something in a particular period of time, you’re less likely to procrastinate on it.

However, a deadline can also be deflating if it turns out your goals’ natural timeframe isn’t in line with your projections. While you can often accelerate progress by working a bit harder, many goals have a natural timeline they will be achieved at. If you set your deadline much faster than that mark, you may end up frustrated when it looks like you can’t reach it.

When Do Deadlines Work Well?

In my mind, deadlines work well for your goals in the following conditions:

  1. You can be confident your deadline and the natural timeframe for the goal are consistent.
  2. You have a fair bit of flexibility with how much effort you can put into the goal.

With the first point, setting a goal which has a timeframe that is much longer than your deadline will inevitably lead to frustration. For instance, if your goal is to lose 30 lbs in a month, not only is this unlikely to be achieved but you might have to risk your health to accomplish it. Similarly, if you want to build a six-figure online business in six months, you’ll also probably be disappointed, no matter how hard you work.

The second point, however, is important too. Deadlines work because they can motivate action. But if constraints mean you really can’t invest more time and energy towards a goal, there isn’t much point.

For example, if you’re trying to learn Japanese and you can only invest three hours per week, a deadline doesn’t make much sense to me. Unless you are prepared to increase the investment or work harder when you’re behind on your goal, a deadline is just there to taunt you.

What Goals Shouldn’t Have Deadlines?

Conversely, I think goals shouldn’t have hard deadlines when:

  1. You don’t know what the natural timeframe is for the goal.
  2. Your investment into the project is relatively fixed.

If you have no idea what is a reasonable deadline to set for a goal, I’m not sure it makes much sense to set one. Unless, of course, you can be prepared to ramp up the investment of time and effort by a large amount, in the case that you’re not meeting your target.

Set a Period of Focus, Instead of a Deadline

A good alternative, I’ve found, to setting goals with deadlines is to set a period of focus instead. This allows you to constrain your time, so you don’t have a project that extends into infinity. But instead of setting a firm standard you need to reach by the end of the project, you just see how far you can go.

The MIT Challenge, had a traditional deadline: pass all the exams and do the programming projects in one year. When I was learning Chinese, in contrast, I had a period of focus: learn Chinese over three months and see how much progress I can make.

Starting with a period of focus can be useful when you’re not sure what the natural timeframe is for a certain goal. Then, as you’re working on the goal, and have a better sense of where you might end up, you can set a more traditional deadline to motivate action. Halfway through my Chinese learning experiment, I decided to write the HSK 4, since I felt it was reachable with the time I had left.



This article was written by Scott H Young, a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, podcast host, computer programmer and an avid reader.

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