How imaginary deadlines can boost productivity

Do you tend to procrastinate and cut your timing too close to your deadlines? Whether you’re a job seeker, employee, freelancer, or entrepreneur, you’re likely used to working toward deadlines that are set by a hiring manager, employer, or client. But sometimes waiting to start a project based on when it is actually due can cause you to procrastinate.

If this is the case, you might benefit from a different approach to time management: creating “imaginary deadlines.” An imaginary or internal deadline is simply an intermediary step you can use to:

  • Put power back into your hands about your work process
  • Give yourself a sense of having more time to reach your goals
  • Help you reach your due dates with less last-minute stress
  • Power a productivity boost by building in a cushion for your momentum
  • By setting an internal deadline that you work toward independent of your real deadline imposed by a boss or client, you can kickstart your creative juices and avoid “11th-hour” scrambling to complete your deliverables. Follow the steps below to learn how to effectively set imaginary deadlines no matter what your line of work is.

Work backwards

Setting an imaginary deadline isn’t rocket science—it just takes commitment and a calendar. There’s no magic formula for selecting an internal deadline; the key is to pick a date that’s far enough ahead of your drop-dead deadline to give you a comfortable cushion for any unexpected challenges that may arise.

A good rule of thumb in setting your internal deadline when you have an actual deadline of two weeks is to work backwards one week from your real deadline and see what happens. Pretend as you work that you really, honestly, no-matter-what must get everything completed not in two weeks, but in a single week. If it ends up difficult or impossible to complete the full workload in that time, at least you will be a week ahead of where you would have been if you’d waited to start later in the process—and you’ll still have a week left for completion.

Harness the energy of “just starting”

Anyone who struggles to get out the door to exercise—but ultimately triumphs in this task—knows the power of beginning. Once you take that first step to walk, run, or bike down the road, momentum kicks in and you wonder what took so long to get you started. When it comes to working out, getting out the door is half the battle. So too with your work projects—once you make that initial move to commence the task, one action leads to the next.

Before you know it, you’ve created energy that develops a life of its own, leading you to do what needs to be completed next and powering your productivity. By setting an imaginary deadline, you enable yourself to benefit earlier from the power of getting started, and you give yourself a longer runway to get more done once you’ve cleared that first hurdle.

Make it easier for yourself

If “just getting started” is easier said than done for you, then you may need to do a few things on the front end to grease the wheels for this to happen. Just as runners can improve their chances of actually getting out the door for their morning run by selecting their workout clothes and shoes the night before, you as a worker can kickstart your motivation and creative juices with some preparation.

Gather all of the materials you’ll need for the project before you start working in earnest on it, whether that’s requesting files from a client, asking your supervisor for initial guidance on a preliminary question, or simply organizing your thoughts around what needs to be done. By starting to sort out these items in advance of the real work beginning, you’ll be familiarizing yourself with the task, making it much easier to dive in when you’re ready.

Job seekers: give up “cram preparation”

Searching for work brings its own set of sometimes difficult time pressures, so imaginary deadlines can really help you organize your job search. For example, if you have an interview scheduled in a week’s time and your usual style is to use “cram preparation” the night before, researching the company and practicing your responses to potential hiring-team questions, why not push up your process by three days and get things done ahead of your usual schedule? That way, you’ll have more time during the week to rehearse your answers if needed, and you can use the night before the interview to rest up and review logistics for arriving at your meeting on time.

You may be thinking, “But I always manage to reach my actual deadlines even if I’m panicked before I do it!” Even if you ultimately meet your cut-off date by pulling an all-nighter and submitting your project under the wire moments before it’s due, powered by a rush of adrenaline, this isn’t a healthy way to work long-term, and can cause you to feel resentful and burnt out over time—a clear productivity killer. Using the tactic of imaginary-deadline setting can help you reach the finish line in a way that’s much more graceful, sustainable, and ultimately productive.

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