• Melissa Wade

The Deadline Effect

It seems natural to dread a deadline. And even if we worry over them constantly, we still don’t always succeed in meeting them. So how do we wrangle then? How do we make a deadline work for us?

While deadlines have been proven to encourage productive behavior, they also act like black holes, drawing time and energy towards themselves, as work gets delayed until right before time expires. This is called the deadline effect. And it’s what Christopher Cox researched for his book titled the same, with the subheading: How to work like it's the last minute - before the last minute.

“Cox is a seasoned dispenser of constraints and expectations, and, in turn, a coaxer and a cajoler of those who must meet them . . . He wants to demystify deadlines in order to defang them, to assure us that if we just tilt our heads we can see our demons as our friends.” —Rachel Syme, The New Yorker

Cox is a magazine editor, well-acquainted with deadlines. If a writer doesn’t get his piece in on time, Cox says, it can affect him, even his whole department. “The magazine is going to go out there on newsstands no matter what. And if there's a big hole in it, where my pieces are supposed to be, I'm in big trouble. You do that enough times, you lose your job.”

Looking beyond his own deadlines, Cox considered the magazine as an organization, complex and multifaceted, and wondered how this big machine met its deadlines. “Why are magazines good at this compared to other organizations?” Cox asked. “And then that expanded to what other organizations are good at this, and what are they doing? And so then, I was off on my road trips and spent a year studying nine different organizations to see what they did right and what they did wrong” in meeting major deadlines.

In my interview with Cox, we talked about the impetus for the book, but also some of my favorite chapters, concerning how Airbus gets a jet built on schedule, how Best Buy prepares for Black Friday, and how a new restaurant is built and readied for the public by opening night.

“The stuff that I really loved about the book,” Cox told me, “was getting in under the hood of all these organizations and seeing how they worked, both with deadlines and just in general, like how a world class restaurant came together, how to use deadlines for that, then also how they make a dish so good. When I was doing the restaurant chapter, I learned at length about how certain recipes had to be followed to the microgram. It's so precise. I always thought cooking was an art and maybe it is for some people, but for the very high end places, it’s also a science, and that was eye opening to see.”

Check out the rest of the interview in Episode 1, and buy The Deadline Effect wherever you get your books.

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