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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