I used to keep a post-it on my workspace with the name Esther Murphy written on it in black Sharpie. I noticed this warning around 2012, as I inhaled Lisa Cohen’s exuberant triple bio, “All We Know,” about three well-endowed gay women who have walked the literary and fashion circles. of Paris, London and New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Murphy, the daughter of a leather goods mogul (and younger sister of Gerald Murphy, whose southern France home was immortalized in “Tender Is the Night”), was a brilliant love seat. She kept the salons captivated by exhilarating historical anecdotes and swaggering political soliloquies; his mind, a crow’s nest of knowledge, connected people to ideas and ideas to radical philosophies. âIf you asked her a question,â Cohen wrote, âshe would lean back, take several jerky puffs from her cigarette, say, ‘All we know isâ – then embark on a long essay on the subject. subject. But what Murphy couldn’t do, despite his fierce intelligence and burst of improvisation, was meet a deadline.
Murphy “wrote” a biography of FranÃ§oise d’AubignÃ©, a French nobleman, religious fanatic and proto-feminist who secretly married Louis XIV but never became the official queen of France. For three decades, Murphy hemmed and hauled, insisted the book was “about a third complete,” and didn’t write his big theories down on paper. Friends helped her connect with the edition, but Murphy missed her delivery dates like a cyclone. Then, one day in 1962, at the age of sixty-five, as she prepared for a walk on the Seine, Murphy met the most literal deadline of all: she had a stroke and died on the blow, leaving behind only a handful of handwritten pages and a cache of frustrated notes.
The name on my wall wasn’t meant to be encouraging; it was meant to be threatening: Don’t find yourself dead and dark near a riverbank with nothing to show for yourself. But after a while the Post-it fell behind my desk and, more than a little relieved, I never bothered to put it back.
My relationship to deadlines, like that of almost everyone I know, is full of contradictions. I want them and I avoid them, I depend on them and I blame them. Deadlines punctuate my life as a journalist, and there is a certain comfort in these external expectations. But a deadline is also a speeding train on the track, and you are the one who is tied to the rails. Urgent obligations that add both structure and suspense to our lives – tax returns, loan repayments, license renewals, job applications, event planning, teeth cleaning, biological clocks – can inspire a nauseating terror as much as courageous action.
As we approach the last day to complete a task, we all react to pressure differently. Some people (well adjusted, diligent) take the plunge, believing that the anxiety of an unpaid bill or an unfinished project is far more painful than the difficulty of sticking to a reasonable schedule. But others, like me, live in blissful denial – at least until the last minute, when, fueled by adrenaline, caffeine, and self-loathing, we go all the way, swearing we will. all differently next time (we wont). And still others, like Murphy, reject deadlines altogether, believing them to be imaginary at best and creativity curses at worst. This laissez-faire philosophy doesn’t quite fit a results-oriented definition of success. A natural moral of Murphy’s disappearance is that by shirking our responsibilities, we reduce our potential. And so most of us keep making to-do lists and growling until the finish line – if not to please others, then to ward off the existential fear of what might happen if we don’t. let’s not.
In “The Deadline Effect”, the editor of the magazine Christopher Cox assures us that he is a true expert on the subject. âProfessionally compelled to worry about deadlines,â he has become a seasoned dispenser of constraints and expectations, and, in turn, a coaxer and cajoler of those who must meet them. You might think that after years of working on the deadline, he would have sworn to do nothing more. But Cox is a zealous proselyte of the “maturity effect” – the transformational work that occurs at the eleventh hour.
Cox writes that his conversion to the cause of delays has started at work. Skeptics should consider the uplifting tale – and Wonder Cure – of a feature film writer named John who is “famous for running over deadlines.” (Although we never learn John’s last name, I remain haunted by this story; it’s every writer’s nightmare for his editor to write a revealing one.) Unlike Esther Murphy, John ends up giving something back, but it is still a hardship for everyone involved, requiring “dozens of phone calls, countless emails and a lot of anxious waiting.”
One day, Cox tries an experiment. He tells John that a major cover story is due, absolutely and without exception, a week before it really needs to be done. (This is no rare trick of the trade: âNo sane editor would ever tell a writer the actual deadline for a story.â) And then the miracle happens: The night before Cox’s rigged date. , John starts dropping paragraphs into a Google doc. The play is ready ahead of schedule, and Cox is delighted with his clever ploy. Setting a “decoy deadline,” he writes, “promised, in essence, the equivalent of full press productivity.”
For Cox, John is a small success with a big lesson. We often invoke the will to do our best when we think we are on the bell, but then it is too late to actually do it. Only by mentally manipulating ourselves to act early and often will we ever be able to do spectacular things. Cox tells us that all of his subjects “have learned to work like it’s the last minute before the last minute.”
If you’re the type of person who sets the kitchen clock ten minutes quickly and always arrives late for dinner reservations, you may doubt the effectiveness of this approach. And Cox concedes that only one person can extricate themselves from any overhanging chore while justifying delinquency. But one group people, he says, get tangled up in their common goals and the deadlines are getting harder to break out. In the anatomy of Cox’s organizations – where the price and benefit of speed can be extreme – delays work much like arteries: these are the structures that keep the blood flowing at the right rate and the heart pumping at the right rate. .
What does John’s full-scale lure deadline look like? Cox takes the Telluride, Colorado ski resort as an example. Each year, Telluride CEO Bill Jensen tells his staff that the tracks must open by Thanksgiving. The catch is that they don’t need to open until the week after Christmas, accounting for twenty percent of ski tourism for the year. Cox calls this trick “a soft opening with teeth.” Soft because the real pressure is still a long way off, but full force because it’s not just an exercise: the ski lifts are really working and the snow cannons are really blowing. This approach gives staff a chance to converge, collaborate and solve problems. Instead of epic collapses, you just get everyday mistakes. (You could say the ski mountain becomes a molehill.) Jensen likens opening early to wrapping Christmas presents. âFor Thanksgiving,â he told Cox, âall we had to do was put the gift in the box. On December 8th, I would like to have the box wrapped with nice wrapping paper. Around December 18-20, put the ribbon on this package and we’re good to go.
Soft opening is a proven tactic. Stores and restaurants often start with a âfriends and familyâ run before welcoming the public. Cox argues that this approach can also help “pathologically late writers” and other solo actors who are struggling to achieve their personal goals. Flexible deadlines, he writes, can become “a means of acquiring the virtues of the delay effect (concentration, urgency, cooperation) without any of the vices (recklessness, despair, incompleteness)”. And there is another element to add to the Christmas analogy: ideally, you should get a reward or punishment at the end. Some people are motivated by brilliant things, others by shame.
I considered putting “sweet deadline with teeth” on another post-it â just when I realized that this piece was due the next day and that I should probably put a pot of coffee on the stove at home. square. But if I was skeptical about Cox’s methods, I was even more skeptical about mine. And while Cox may have learned his tricks as a delay applicator, he knows better than preaching without practice. It carefully balances being the oracle who knows what’s best for us – every chapter is summed up with MBA-friendly catchphrases – and the growl that saw the worst.
To truly appreciate the stakes of setting deadlines, Cox fitted in as a Best Buy seller during the most important and terrible time of the year: Black Friday and the rush before the holidays. The chapter recounting his experience is chillingly titled, “Becoming ‘a Mission Determined Monster.’ Â»Cox uses the phrase of a Houston the Chronicle article on the simplified deployment of Nasaof the Apollo program. He admits that it may be “too grandiose” to compare selling discount DVD players to a trip to the moon, but the two efforts, he writes, reveal “how even a giant company [can] rebuild to meet the challenge of a particularly important deadline.