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.

What do you do? Do you tend to set deadlines for your goals, a period of focus or neither? What do you do to stay motivated and avoid frustration when working on your own projects?

  • Bjarke Tan

    Hi I apologize if i am wrong but if i am right wasn’t you the first to come up with the idea of the fyenman technique? A few people on youtube have made a video about it without giving you credits(the video from collegeinfogeek did gave credits but only on hes website not directly in the video)

  • Richard

    The first that came up with the idea was Feynman…

  • Marvin John Towler

    I make an effort to only set goals that I truly want to accomplish. In my personal experience I found that I may have a “good idea” and think it should be a goal when in fact it was merely a passing fancy. I ask myself a very simple question when setting goals: “What do you want?”

  • James Cote

    I really like the distinction between period of focus and deadlines. Thanks for the insight! I also think that with deadlines some sort of stakes are key to having the deadline be truly motivating (e.g. in the MIT challenge there was some public accountability). Otherwise, I’ve found I’ll just blow it off when it gets tough. Though maybe I’m just setting too sharp a timeframe…

  • Mosbie Chiweza

    I like the idea of periods of focus. It’s how I learn non academic hobbies like musical instruments to see if I have a certain skill to it then when I get a bit fluent I add in goals like improve piano speed in this many weeks. I like the thought that goes into your articles.

  • Kiran Raj

    It is a very interesting point that you have made!. Period of focus is in fact the most important factor in the course of doing a project/task. Focusing too much on the end result will end up in a less efficient execution of the steps.

  • Udochi Okeke

    “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.”

    ^I felt that this statement was key. You mentioned losing weight in 30 days or building a six figure income in six months as being unattainable. However, some would say learning conversational Chinese in 3 months or getting the equivalent of an MIT computer science education in 1 year are unattainable. I think the difference is in the definition of realistic; and I believe that realistic is only based on how committed a person is.

    The trap, I feel that many people (including myself) often fall into is honestly gauging how much they can handle. Some of us overestimate what we can do. Maybe we were extremely productive at one point in our lives and think we can do it again. However, we fail to account for the fact that we had a lot more time on our hands when we did the other thing.

    For example, I have done some extreme things in my life. Like losing over 20 pounds in under 30 days and teaching myself to code in a short period of time. But I didn’t have a job when I was undertaking those projects. I have sought to achieve that level of productivity for various other things since then, but the challenge is that I have taken on many more things in my life. So, I know now (after months and perhaps years of trial and failure) that I need to prune my life of certain tasks. The question, then, is which ones.

    Tony Robbins had a great tip on “work-life balance”. He said that there is no such thing. That one must strive to integrate their work and their life (i.e. work-life integration). One must try to make their work fit into their life and vice versa. So, if you are an entrepreneur, maybe marry someone who either wants to work in your business or just likes to travel around with you and be your “helpmate” so that you guys are actually spending time together and you can fulfill the necessity to bond via time spent “connecting”. (Idk, that’s just a random example).

    Anyway, this comment has turned into it’s own blog. Great topic!

  • Great comment. I believe that you are onto something.

    I too, fall victim of over/underestimating how much time a project will take. Each time I renovate my house, my gauge of time is drastically different than how much time it actually takes.

    I disagree with having more or less time on your hands.

    Each of us has the same 24 hours in each day and it is up to the user to find a way to best utilize them. It is widely known that making sacrifices, large and small, is one of, if not the best way to make more time. As far as time actually goes, it is best to figure out what time of day you tend to be most productive at. If you’re like me, you know that time is in the morning. As a consequence, I wake up invigorated and ready to go each day. As the day continues on, my productivity drops just like the sun in the sky. That’s not to say that I don’t continue to work on projects in the evening. Quite the contrary. I typically find myself working on my “pet” projects or the ones that keep me energized.

    I like that you have recognized that when you needed to do something, you had to prune your life of tasks. Not only is “pruning your life” a great analogy but it showcases your desire to want and achieve more. In my instance, the first tasks to go are always the most meaningless. I base my life on “what will doing this actually do for me?” Things like television, social media, YouTube, etc…are all useless to me and as such, they have been pruned.

    Again, great comment and great article!