Dr. Val Farmer
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A Motivational Secret: Deadlines

April 23, 2001

Here are some truisms about human nature. See if you agree.

- People will change only when the perceived consequences of changing seem less painful than the perceived consequences of not changing. Fear of the unknown is overcome by an even greater fear of what will happen if nothing is done.

- Work expands to the amount of time available to complete the task. Work that is easy or fun is put ahead of important work that is hard and painful.

- As long as we don't know where we are going, no one can fault us for not getting there. The less specific our plans and commitments, the less we feel we will be held accountable.

- It is easier to do the work by yourself than to take the time to train and supervise someone else. Delegation requires human relations, skills in communication, trust, teamwork, and shared goals.

- Without a plan, goals are just dreams. Procrastination is the death of great plans. Without plans, goals remain beyond reach and dreams remain dreams.

My motivational secret. A friend of mine asked me what was my secret to being motivated. I gave what must have been a rather lofty but empty answer. My wife heard it and wasn't satisfied. The next day she came up with an answer that satisfied her. Deadlines!

I respond to deadlines. I wish I could say I am an exception to those rules of human nature listed above . . . that I am a highly disciplined, self-starting person motivated by compelling goals. I can't. My wife was right. The answer is deadlines.

Having deadlines implies that there are real problems with real consequences. This is not play. This is serious. If a deadline isn't respected, something bad will happen or something good won't happen. If there is no deadline, no pressure, no urgency, then how important is the problem, anyway? If it can be postponed indefinitely, then it probably isn't that important.

When something is expected of us, if our effort is needed, we strive hard to measure up. Deadlines define what is required of us. If we have deadlines, we either respond or we don't. That is better than not being needed or not having a worthwhile task to do. Work is sustained effort toward a worthwhile goal.

People can have deadlines and still feel unhappy and unimportant. This happens when the deadlines that are imposed upon them do not reflect their personal aspirations. Much of life is survival; people do what is necessary, not what they really want to do. People do hard things and go through hard times simply because they have to.

Goals and direction change. Uninvited troubles and problems can be just as powerful as the ones we choose for ourselves. Life is such that there are plenty of challenges and problems to go around, even if we don't choose them.

Choosing our problems and deadlines presupposes that we know ourselves - what we enjoy, what our talents are, what we want out of life, and that we have a reasonable amount of freedom to act on our choices. Goals bring focus to one's energies. Decisions are easier when goals are defined. Clear-cut goals make it easier to recognize opportunities and to spot problems when they occur.

Part of life is to undertake this journey of self-discovery without having the destination fully in mind, and then having the courage to define, revise, and refine our goals as our vision grows clearer. Obstacles force a greater vision and demand creative solutions. As we create, we grow. Life isn't a straight path. Rather, it is full of twists and surprises. We end up at a better place than we had in mind when we started out.

There is a human relations bonus to setting goals. People work together to realize their common goals. Shared goals create the basis for unity and cooperation. This is the essence of teamwork. A shared success brings more joy than a solitary triumph.

Deadlines make it happen. The key to a successful life is to place ourselves in situations where deadlines draw from us the necessary effort and hard work to accomplish our long-range goals. Unsolved problems force us to search for a greater vision, to activate our creativity, and to develop new strengths as we struggle with the unknown.

Initially we feel threatened and overwhelmed by the task in front of us. Challenges aren't pleasant when they are too new and appear overwhelming. We persist and draw strength from the steps and progress we make. It begins to feel good. We accomplish goals and set new ones.

Success or failure depends on the ability to translate long range goals into day-to-day work and meaningful deadlines. Some stumble because their short-term deadlines don't match up with their long-term goals. Having deadlines is not enough. They have to be the right deadlines.

The deadline for writing this column has arrived. I needed it. The column is done. I made it. Now on to the next deadline.