Why It Doesn’t Pay to Extend a Schedule

Construction project schedules are extended for many reasons, one of which is to avoid turning over an incomplete store to operations. While this sounds like a reasonable idea, the results would surprise you. Research suggests that time extensions have limited impact on how well people use their time. Here are three reasons why:

Problem #1: Loss of Motivation

In the early part of the last century, researchers observed that one’s motivation to reach a goal increases as the distance from the goal decreases. Psychologists call this largely unconscious mechanism the “Goal Looms Larger Effect,” meaning that the nearer you are to the finish line, the larger the goal “looms” in your mind — the more it dominates your thinking and benefits from your attention.

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Problem #2: Procrastination

When the deadline pressure is alleviated, our brains allow us to delay. Procrastinators have a misconception that they work better under pressure. Psychologically, saying “I work better under pressure” makes zero sense, because “pressure” is just another way of saying “just barely sufficient time to complete whatever I’m doing.”

It’s far more accurate to say that if you are a procrastinator, you work because there is pressure. Without pressure, you don’t work. Which is why pushing back a deadline is terrible for procrastinators. (Though naturally, they are typically the ones asking for extensions)

Problem #3: Resource Reallocation

As soon as the pressure to complete a project is removed, people tend to reallocate resources to other pressing jobs or activities. It is then harder to get those resources back on-track once they’ve already diverted their attention.

If it’s not possible to set interim deadlines, then try to avoid extending your schedule at all. The odds are good that you’ll have little to show for it but wasted time.

How to Make Good Use of an Extended Deadline

If we want to solve Problems 1 & 2 — keeping motivation high and keeping the pressure on for procrastinators — we need to find ways to shorten the distance between where we are now and where we want to end up.

To solve Problem 3, the most effective solution is to impose interim deadlines, effectively breaking a larger goal up into discrete sub-goals spaced out strategically in time. These deadlines need to be meaningful as well — if it’s no big deal to miss the deadline, then it’s not a real deadline.

If it’s not possible to set interim deadlines, then you really should try to avoid pushing back your deadline altogether. The odds are good that you’ll have little to show for it but wasted time.

Sources: Harvard Business Review