Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

The Whooshing Sound of Deadlines

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
Douglas Adams, writer and humorist, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by Kerstin Nordstrom

Figure Four

The Mathematics of Motivation, from [3]

I haven’t written my Great American Novel yet.

But I have written many blog posts, news articles, journal articles, and essays that in total would far exceed this theoretical novel’s length. So if I could chop up the Great American Novel into little specific bits of work, the task seems doable. But I know I still wouldn’t do it. Without a deadline, I am as productive as an old dog on a hot day.

Most of us have problems working without a deadline. Many of us also procrastinate up to the deadline, then go into a hyperstate of productivity, often needing to extend the deadline a smidge.

So even when we technically miss the deadline, the deadline makes us try.

The word deadline is striking, and the etymology relates back to the Civil War. If, as a prisoner, you walked over the “deadline,” a boundary of a military prison, the guards were free to shoot you. The meaning morphed into a general way of saying tolerable limit. Eventually it morphed again into the common usage of the day: a time limit. But surely the name isn’t the motivating factor; we don’t believe we will actually die if we turn in our homework a day late.

But even if death isn’t the consequence, the consequences are a motivating factor. Whether negative or positive, the consequences become clearer as the deadline approaches. As Josh Gibson, an American baseball player stationed in Cuba in the 30s said, “When you get hungry enough, you find yourself speaking Spanish pretty well.”

Our prefrontal cortex is responsible for impulse control and planning. If it’s not strong, it will be overwhelmed by our more primitive impulses when the deadline isn’t there. The amygdala can send us strong signals to avoid harm, and the nucleus accumbens wants to be filled up with dopamine and serotonin to make us feel good. Staying up late to work on something that has no due date sounds harmful. Having wine with friends instead sounds wonderful. But often these decisions are less obvious. Interrupting your work to check email seems almost harmless, but is it really an excuse to do something potentially more fun, like read a funny email from a friend? If our prefrontal cortex is well-trained or naturally strong, we can make the choice.

When the consequences of the deadline loom closer, we start to activate the pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance related to the deadline, and focus less on all of the other noise. As the 11th hour approaches, we shift focus entirely to the task at hand. Even if our prefrontal cortex is weak, it knows that the right choice now is to do the deed.

Exercising your prefrontal cortex is probably a good thing. However, if you just want to predict how likely you are to complete a task, some academics have come up with a “Temporal Motivation Theory.” You’ll just need to assign number values to some things in your life. Motivation = (Probability you will succeed)x(value of reward), divided by (your impulsiveness)x(the time remaining).

So if anyone wants to give me a deadline and a reward for completing my Great American Novel, I can guarantee my motivation will be there. Until then, I’ll be focusing on all the other deadlines, and occasionally taking an evening to drink wine instead.


[1] http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v12/n7/full/nn.2321.html
[2] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13803395.2010.518597#.UhY1cpLql8E
[3] http://amr.aom.org/content/31/4/889.short

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This entry was posted on August 22, 2013 by in Health, Neuroscience.
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