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in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: October 1, 2021

Podcast #728: Improve Your Productivity With the Power of Deadlines

Everyone has experienced the way deadlines can act as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, they force us to get stuff done; but on the other, they often push us to wait until the last minute to get to work, so that we do that work in a poorly executed, slapdash rush. Scientists call that latter dynamic “the deadline effect,” and my guest today has taken a field-tested dive into how to manage it, so that you can get the advantages of deadlines, without suffering from their downsides.

His name is Chrisopther Cox, and he’s the author of The Deadline Effect: How to Work Like It’s the Last Minute—Before the Last Minute. We begin our conversation with how Chris’s experience as a magazine editor got him interested in deadlines and what studies have shown as to both their benefits and their pitfalls. Chris then unpacks ways to harness the former towards greater productivity in both your personal and professional life, including creating interim checkpoints, knowing how to set reasonable due dates, planning left to right rather than right to left, and using what he calls “soft opens with teeth.” Along the way, Chris explains these principles using a bunch of real world case studies, from the system a chef uses to open multiple Michelin 3-star restaurants to how the Telluride ski resort gets ready to open for the season. We end our conversation with what you can start doing today to take advantage of the power of deadlines in your own life.

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Read the Trasnscript!

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now everyone has experienced the way deadlines can act as a double-edged sword: On the one hand, they force us to get stuff done; but on the other, they often push us to wait until the last minute to get to work, so we do that work in a poorly executed, slapdash rush. Scientists call that latter dynamic “The deadline effect.” And my guest today has taken a field-tested dive into how to manage it, so that you can get the advantages of deadlines, without suffering from their downsides. His name is Christopher Cox, and he’s the author of The Deadline Effect: How to Work Like It’s the Last Minute Before the Last Minute. We begin our conversation with how Chris’ experience as a magazine editor got him interested in deadlines and what studies have shown as to both their benefits and their pitfalls.

Chris then unpacks ways to harness the former towards greater productivity in both your personal and professional life, including creating interim checkpoints, knowing how to set reasonable due dates, planning right to left rather than left to right, and using what he calls “Soft opens with teeth.” Along the way, Chris explains these principles using a bunch of real world case studies, from the system a chef uses to open multiple Michelin 3-star restaurants to how the Telluride ski resort gets ready to open for the season. We end our conversation with what you can start doing today to take advantage of the power of deadlines in your own life. After the show is over check out our show notes at aom.is/deadline.

Alright, Chris Cox, welcome to the show.

Christopher Cox: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So you got a book out called “The Deadline Effect: How to Work Like It’s the Last Minute Before the Last Minute.” What got you thinking about the power of deadlines? 

Christopher Cox: I mean, it really started with the career that I had for many years before I started writing this book, which was in the magazine business. And magazines run on deadlines and always have. And there’s actually one particular problem that I was trying to figure out while I worked at a couple different magazines that motivated me. And the question I had is why is it that every magazine I’ve ever worked at, we never miss a deadline. Like we always… That we’ve never missed a month, if it’s a monthly magazine, we never missed a week, if it’s a weekly magazine, how come that these organizations be so consistent, even though they have the same problems as any other workplace, there are lazy people, there are confused people, there are people who are overburdened. And yet we consistently meet the monthly deadlines. And so that sort of kicked me, that got me looking into it and trying to look into some of the psychology and the social science behind deadlines. And eventually I think that that led me to write this book.

Brett McKay: Yeah, this is a surprising amount of research about deadlines. We’re gonna talk about some of that today, but let’s talk about the word itself, deadline, it’s pretty kind of a dark word. Where did it come from and how did we make it be the thing that means like, this is the due date. It’s basically a due date, but we say deadline.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. It’s a pretty gruesome sounding word. And it has a… I mean, the origin is actually related to death. We think that the word originated during the civil war when prisoners of war in the stockade, there was a deadline surrounding the prison. And if a prisoner crossed that line, they’d be shot dead. And that was the deadline. And it sort of traveled its way over to the newspaper business. And a similar line on a printed page was called the deadline. And if you tried to print something outside that line, it wouldn’t show up on the paper. So that’s the line beyond which any text would die metaphorically. So you couldn’t put words there. And then because it was already in the newspaper business, it sort of morphed one more time to mean the time that you would have to file a story, or the time you’d have to print a story. And then it got adopted beyond that into the wider world so that we all think of due dates as deadlines now.

Brett McKay: Interesting. So let’s talk about in general, like the research about the benefits of having a deadline, what do we know? And then maybe drill into the specifics as we go on in this conversation? 

Christopher Cox: Sure. Yeah. I mean, the first thing to say is simply that deadlines are remarkably effective. We may dread them, we may think that, “Oh, I always blow my deadlines,” but actually when you dig into the social science and experimental evidence and even real-world evidence, they work, they don’t always work perfectly and there’s ways to tailor them to make them work better. But the first thing you should do is just embrace the power of the deadline. I often say like the very worst deadline you can set for yourself is as soon as possible, in fact, you should set a concrete deadline, maybe down to a specific time for any project that you have.

And I mean, just to name like one quick and very simple experiment, some researchers had their students fill out a very long questionnaire and it was not a huge task, but it took a little bit of time to fill out this questionnaire and if they finished it, they would… Each student would get $5. And one group was given no deadline, and the other group was given, I believe three weeks to finish it. And the group that had the deadline was two and a half times more likely to finish the questionnaire and two and half times more likely to get $5 from doing that. So very, very simple, but just a little bit of experimental evidence there that like, yeah, these things work like, we should learn… If they work so well, we need to learn how to use them effectively.

Brett McKay: We also highlight an example of deadlines being effective in helping us get things done with the US census. So I think all of…

Christopher Cox: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay:We just did that, right? So we got… You get that form in the mail and there’s sort of like a deadline, but it’s like way, way far away. And what ends up happening is it gets in your junk mail pile or like my bill pile and you never do it. And so the government has to hire people to go door to door and do the census, and that just costs a lot of money. And so there’s this person at the census who’s like, maybe we can manipulate some deadlines here to get people to do these things sooner, and so we don’t have to go out knocking on their door. Can you tell us about that experiment.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. So this sort of feeds into my overall concept of deadlines, which is first they’re effective and second that you can manipulate them, you can sort of tweak them to be more effective. And so that experiment was done by a census worker and basically everyone has gotten the postal questionnaire from the census. And if you fill that out, it’s a lot cheaper for the government than it is if they have to send someone to your door to basically conduct the census face-to-face. And so they want to get as many people as possible to fill out that form. But like you said, it ends up on the junk pile, people ignore it, it gets lost, whatever, or that people think they just have more time to do it and then don’t do it, the census deadline passes. So this experiment by the census worker, her name was Elizabeth Martin, was again, very simple. She just changed the deadline to be a week earlier for one group. So two sets of census forms went out, one people had a week less to finish it and the somewhat counter-intuitive result was that the people who got it, who had less time to finish it were more likely to send it back. So the shorter deadline actually motivated people to get it done. And they also found that the quality of the census, like the, how many questions they answered, how thorough they were improved as well.

Brett McKay: Okay. So I think we all understand that deadlines can be useful. We’ve probably all experienced in our own lives, whether we were in school or at work, are there downsides to deadlines? 

Christopher Cox: Yeah. Well, I mean the name of the book is the deadline effect, and the deadline effect itself is a social science concept, and it’s a negative thing when economists talk about the deadline effect, what they mean is our tendency to delay the work till the last minute. So it often comes up in negotiations like between the union or in a corporation, for example, like those deals usually get struck as the clock ticks down to zero. And there’s a way in which the deadline itself incentivizes people to delay their work. And what I try to argue in the book is like, well, what if we took the power of the deadline effect? And the deal gets done. The deal is reached on the courthouse steps, but what if we took that power, but manipulated it so that people could get things done earlier or more effectively, or have more time to revise, more all the things you want rather than getting things done at the last minute. And so if you’re prey to the deadline effect, the end result ends up usually being worse for all parties than it is if you’ve deliberately done your work productively all the way leading up to the deadline. So again, the book is about how to avoid that scenario.

Brett McKay: Got you, and I think we’ve all experienced that too. I mean, if you were in college and you waited until the night before to write your term paper, well, it’s probably a crappier term paper than if you’d started weeks before.

Christopher Cox: Yeah, no, and it’s not going to be as good. You’re going to have typos. You’re going to have errors. It’s going to be not as carefully thought out as it would be if you had worked more deliberately toward that deadline. Absolutely. And as part of this book, I had to study a little bit of the psychology of procrastination. And one thing that I read was 20% of adults are considered chronic procrastinators. That means that they procrastinated on basically every project, but that number jumps up to 50% when you’re in college. So we’re particularly bad at regulating ourselves when it comes to deadlines when we’re in college.

Brett McKay: Alright. So as you said in your book, you’re trying to figure out how to get the benefits of the deadline, having that hard due date that can be motivating to get something done while mitigating the downside. So you’re not getting that deadline effect where you just get crappy results, ’cause you’re trying to rush to hit the deadline. So you start off the book with a case study from this chef named, I’m going to get his name right as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Vongerichten.

Christopher Cox: Pretty close. Yeah. Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Christopher Cox: His staff calls him JG, which keeps things simple.

Brett McKay: JG. Alright, I’m gonna call him JG.

Christopher Cox: There you go.

Brett McKay: So JG, he’s been able to figure out how to use deadlines to open up multiple 3-star Michelin restaurants, which is for those who don’t understand, like it’s hard just to get one restaurant to be a 3-star Michelin restaurant. This guy has done multiple, what’s the system of deadlines that he’s developed to allow him to do this without fail? 

Christopher Cox: Yeah, he’s got, I believe 40, maybe it’s more, I mean, 40 restaurants around the world. It was funny when I wrote this chapter, I had to keep updating that number ’cause he kept opening up new restaurants. But yeah, these are high quality restaurants, gourmet dining, they get all the awards and you know, that’s a very difficult thing to do. Opening a restaurant is a very complicated process, but he’s got a system and it works for him. And one of the most important things he does is setting interim deadlines along the way to opening a restaurant. So for the case study that I did, I embedded with this organization and reported on when he opened up two restaurants back to back, literally on a Tuesday and a Wednesday and how he pulled that off. And the thing that I saw that was most important to both getting it done on time and getting it done at a high level of quality were these interim deadlines. And in the restaurant world and with Jean-Georges, what that meant was he had what he called mock services.

And other restaurants do this too, but he did it very methodically every single night, starting two months before the proposed opening date, he would start basically trying to run the restaurant as if it was already open. And at first that meant that he would serve meals to the staff or the chefs and the staff that was there would serve it to the rest of the staff. And then they would start dragging in more people. So people from his larger organization, then eventually they would get the construction companies executives to come in and dine. And each of those served as a little interim deadline on the way to that real actual opening date. And they got to improve the quality of the dining experience every time. And they would tweak and tweak and tweak and learn something from each deadline along the way. And it meant that when opening day arrived, it wasn’t this frenzied rush. It was like, oh, this is just another night in this restaurant that’s already kind of been operating for a couple of months now.

Brett McKay: Okay. So I guess that the takeaway from there on how to use deadlines with… While mitigating the deadline effect is have multiple deadlines. It’s not just a single deadline, but multiple.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. These interim deadlines, these checkpoints along the way are very effective, and there was an experiment done by Dan Ariely who wrote the book Predictably Irrational, who talks a lot about these sort of things like how to sort of work with our built-in biases. So he did an experiment wherein he had his students… I’m trying to remember exactly how it worked. He had three groups of students and they all had to turn in three term papers during a class, and one group was given no deadlines, so they could basically turn in all three papers in the last day of class. The other was told to submit them at equal intervals throughout the semester, so one, one-third of the way through, one, two-thirds of the way through, and one at the very end. And the other got to choose, they could either space them out or they could just put them all in on the last day.

 And then he graded all the papers and found something that might not surprise you, which is that the people with evenly spaced deadlines did the best, the people who waited till the last day of class to turn in all three papers did the worst. But another interesting finding was that those that got to choose their own deadline, if they chose evenly spaced deadlines, did as well as the people with the mandatory ones.

Brett McKay: Alright, multiple deadlines, you’re gonna get a better product and… Yeah, you’re just gonna get a better product and you’re gonna be less stressed about it. But here’s the tricky part. I think we’ve probably… If you went to college, you probably had some study skills class where they told you you’ve got to set multiple deadlines for your term paper. You know that logically, and you say, okay I’m gonna implement this. So you start planning things out. Like I’m gonna… Like my final paper’s due here, and I’m gonna do a deadline here and then another deadline here. But then you start working on the thing and you’re like, “Man, this is gonna take… This is taking longer than I thought it was gonna take.” Basically, we discover we’re really bad at planning.

Christopher Cox: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay: So why are we so bad at planning? And then how can you avoid setting deadlines you can’t meet? 

Christopher Cox: Yeah, we’re bad at planning. I think it’s just… It’s another one of those built-in biases that humans have. There’s a name for it, it’s called the planning fallacy. It is a product of actually our optimism, like we always think that we’re gonna get things done faster and for lower cost than we actually get them done. The classic example of the planning fallacy is the Sydney Opera House, which when it was first designed, they had a planned timeline of six years to complete it and a budget of 7 million Australian dollars, and it actually took 16 years and cost 102 million dollars.

Brett McKay: Wow.

Christopher Cox: And so researchers have studied this problem and tried to figure out solutions to it, and the solution, again, it’s like it’s very sort of straightforward, but it’s amazing how powerful it is, and it’s simply to think about the last time you did a similar project and try to remember how long that took, and that’s how you set the timeline for your new project. So the last time you wrote a 10-page term paper, it took you… You thought it was gonna take you two weeks, it took you six weeks, okay, well, if you have to budget your time, plan for six weeks for that, and just that little nudge, that little bit of deliberate thinking is enough to help you plan effectively. It’ll help you vanquish this planning fallacy.

Brett McKay: Well, another thing you highlight too that can help vanquish it is instead of planning left to right, plan right to left. What do you mean by that? 

Christopher Cox: Right. So this is when you have a situation where basically you don’t get to set the deadline, but you have a mandatory deadline that you have to meet. In the book, I talk about two different organizations that have this happen to them regularly. One is Airbus, the aerospace company. They promise a jet to United Airlines, they have to deliver by that date or there are actually huge penalties. And so the way they get around the planning fallacy, the way they make sure that they deliver on time and don’t run over like the Sydney Opera House, is they plan right to left. So they get out their calendar and they know the end date, and then work left on the calendar. They work backwards in time to plan each stage, and again, sort of remembering how long did it take us to do this phase last time, all the way back, and then use that as their guide for keeping on target. And then the other organization was, I went and spent a few weeks with four family farms in Northern California and Southwestern Oregon that provide all the Easter lilies that are sold in the United States and Canada every year.

Easter lily is a white lily, and it really is only bought and sold for Easter, for the Easter weekend. And so one of the farmers told me, basically the day after Easter this crop is useless. So they really have to meet that deadline, they have to have the lilies ready to ship in time for the holiday. And they did the same thing. They really carefully planned out their year and knew down to the day how long each stage of the process would take, what… Harvest, there is a period when the bulbs are stored in a warehouse, there’s a period when it goes into the greenhouse and they plan backwards from that and that tells them basically when to plant, when to harvest, and that’s how they meet their deadline year after year.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I picked up on that right to left planning when I was in law school getting ready for exams, ’cause in law school, your entire grade for the semesters depends on this one single exam you take. It’s an essay exam with some multiple choice. And so what I did is, okay, I would… At the beginning of the semester, I’d say, okay, the test is this date. And then I would schedule out, okay, I’m gonna do a practice test this Saturday before and then this Saturday before. And it was amazing how much that helped in me getting ready for those law school exams.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. No. Exactly. If you work the other way, you’re much more likely to spill past the date that you actually need to get it done.

Brett McKay: Right. So another thing you argue is to think of deadlines as… Basically some deadlines, not all deadlines, but some deadlines as a Soft Open with Teeth. What do you mean by that? 

Christopher Cox: Right. So deadlines, no matter what kind they are, are effective. But even if they’re self-imposed, even if it’s just you sitting and thinking to yourself, I’m gonna get it done by this Friday at 5:00 PM or whatever, that helps. But the more what I call enforcement mechanisms you can work in, the better for you, the more likely it is you are actually gonna get it done. And so a soft deadline with teeth is basically… It’s a real deadline and that there are some consequences if you miss it, but it is before the most important deadline, the sort of do or die date. And so the case study I did for that is I went to Telluride Ski Resort in Colorado and watched how they open the mountain for the season, and basically that involves spinning up a lot of different parts of the organization. They have to hire liftees, people to run the lifts, they have to hire ski instructors, and then most importantly, they have to cover the entire mountain in snow, a lot of the early season is only possible because of artificial snowmaking.

And the way that they have made sure that they open successfully is by setting a soft deadline with teeth. So in the ski business, the first big weekend is the week between Christmas and New Year’s. And that’s the week that you have to have everything up and running full speed, if you are going to meet your revenue for the year, they have to have… That’s when… That’s the busiest week of the entire ski season. So that’s the real deadline, that’s the do or die date for Telluride. So they decided, okay, fine. Well, if we want to make sure that we’re completely ready by that date, when should we open? And for the past more than a decade they’ve opened on Thanksgiving and the way they thought it was like, that’s a real deadline, there are going to be real people skiing on the mountain that day if we announced that we’re open, those are the teeth, but if we miss it, or if the experience isn’t 100% or whatever, we still have several more weeks to dial things in and improve the resort before the do or die date of the Christmas holiday.

Brett McKay: How do you think just like regular people can implement this in their workaday life like soft openings with teeth? 

Christopher Cox: Well, I mean, I did a version of this one for my book, basically I promised my agent and my wife that I would give them the book about a month before it was due to the publisher. And I… That’s not the strongest set of enforcement. Like my wife would probably forgive me if I missed my deadline, but I had that deadline in mind and I gave her something on that date. You know, I was like, please read this. And it helped keep me sort of on target for my real deadline, which was when I had to give it to my publisher.

Brett McKay: So something you pointed out in the book, setting deadlines for some projects can be pretty straightforward. I’m thinking, in your business, like the magazine business, as an editor, you had the… The final deadline was to print, right? Yeah, that was the ultimate deadline you had to get to ship out the thing.

Christopher Cox: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay:But before that, there was these other deadlines, there’s the layout, there’s the photography, and then there was the copy editing and the editing and then the fact checking, and then you working with the writer editing the stuff. So it’s complicated, but it can be pretty linear. There are some tasks, however, some projects that aren’t as linear, like they’re complex, there’s a lot of moving parts that are interacting in unpredictable ways. How do you set deadlines for those types of projects? 

Christopher Cox: Well, I think there’s a few different strategies you can use. One is to use those interim deadlines as sort of, okay, I’m planning right to left, that here is this huge project I know I have to get these 10 things done and just set individual deadlines for each of them. The other thing, the other, I guess, bias to be aware of is something called “The Mere Urgency Effect,” which is our tendency to prioritize whatever is due next, whatever has the closest deadline. You know, that’s fine if you’re not overloaded, but if you are, it means you’re going to start doing things that are unnecessary at the expense of those that are much more important. And so the researcher that studied this effect talk about what’s called outcome salience. So when you think about any part of this project, think about, okay, if I get this done, what is the outcome going to be like? How important is that towards the final end goal that I have? 

And the way that I sort of… The case study I attached to this bias that we have was I embedded in a presidential campaign. It was a long-shot presidential candidate for the Democratic primary named John Delaney. Great guy, he let me sort of tag along with him in Iowa for several days. And running for president is extremely complicated. Like there’s a million different things. You hire staff all over the country, but because he was this long-shot candidate, he actually was very effective. I mean, he knew that his only chance was to sort of strip down his operation to essentials. And so his goal was to get to the first debate. So he had to qualify for the first debate by getting 1% in three different polls, which doesn’t sound hard but actually if you’re sort of someone that people don’t know about, if you’re not Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, it can be difficult to even get 1%.

 And so he sort of set aside everything else that had to do with campaigning and focused only on this one goal, three polls, 1% and the way he figured out how to do that was, forget about going to other states in the country. I’m going to focus only on Iowa because that’s where they do the most polling. And I’m going to go to every county in Iowa. And I bet you, if I shake enough hands, I could probably get this 1% in three different polls in this one state. So he really, really prioritized what he was doing. And it worked, I mean, he got those three polls. He was on the first debate stage and that was his best shot. You know, if he had broken out during that debate, then he would have been a viable candidate. I mean, he would’ve made it farther than he did, but he did not do as well on debate stage as he wanted to. And so he did not make it too much farther.

Brett McKay: Well, so that’s another benefit of deadlines right there when you’re facing a project that just seems overwhelming, a deadline… For him the deadline was I got to get this many… This percentage of poll, like 1% poll by this deadline so I can get on the stage for the debate, it can add some clarity and give you some focus and you feel less overwhelmed.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. And yeah, exactly. It was sort of like a filter to apply to any question that came across his desk. It’s like, will this get me closer to that goal? And if the answer was no, then he would decline that invitation or whatever it was. So actually before the DNC, the Democratic National Committee announced that they were going to have this criteria for the, for the debate, the 1% criteria, he was a lot more all over the place. He was at Iowa, and he went to the South, he went to the West Coast, he went all over the place. But as soon as they announced that, he’s like, ah, I’m in Iowa everyday as much as I can be.

Brett McKay:And if he was being led astray by The Mere Urgency Effect, he would have kept going to all these different places. He’s like, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Like I’m supposed to… They’re having this thing in California now, I need to be there.

Christopher Cox: Yeah.

Brett McKay:But instead he just said, no, that’s… It might be urgent, but it’s not important. I got to focus on Iowa, that’s my… That’s the thing that’s gonna give me at least a shot.

Christopher Cox: Exactly. Like he told me before that this new debate rules were set up, his plan was to do a 50-state bus tour. And that’s exactly the thing that you should not be doing if you’re trying to get three Iowa polls. So he canceled that and focused on his ground game in Iowa.

Brett McKay: Okay. So I think the takeaway there, if you have an overwhelming project, figure out what’s the most important thing, the thing that’s going to get you closer to your goal and don’t get sucked in doing that stuff that you think you’re supposed to be doing, because it seems like it’s urgent or other people are doing it.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. Just apply the question of, does this get me closer to my final goal? At basically every task that you see.

Brett McKay: Another case study you looked at on organizations that use deadlines to make things happen is the theater.

Christopher Cox: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay:The world of theater. And it’s very similar as I was reading, like this is just like opening a restaurant in a lot of ways.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. There’s that same sort of like deliberate practice phase. I mean in theater it’s much more formalized. We know the language of it better, because you know, everyone’s heard of rehearsals and then dress rehearsals and then opening night and all that. But yeah, looking at theaters, I went to the opening of one play at the public theater in New York. I sort of saw how much they built in, of like a system, a very deliberate process to make sure that they hit all their marks, that things improved at the right pace so that when it was opening night that the play would be ready to go on.

Brett McKay:And you use this to explore this idea of using deadlines to improve what psychologists called sensemaking or understanding, just basically get a better grasp for what’s going on in your project.

Christopher Cox: Yeah, exactly. So one of the… Right, this is going to sound sarcastic, but one of the joys of researching this book is I got to read all sorts of interesting publications, and I read one paper in a publication called Administrative Science Quarterly, not a magazine I would normally read. And it talked about this idea of sensemaking and updating. So sensemaking is simply pausing and creating a space and a deliberate time to sort of assess how things are going. So in the theater, that means at the end of every rehearsal, the director gives notes. He says, all right, today, the scene was working, the scene was not, here’s what was wrong about it. That’s sensemaking, that’s looking at how your project is going and figuring out what’s working, and what’s not. And then updating is simply what you do in response to that, it’s like, okay, well, if this scene is acting… Is this a little bit slow? Then let’s speed it up. Or if it needs more energy, let’s add more energy.

So, and if you… In this article in Administrative Science Quarterly that talk about sensemaking and updating in the operating room and some surgeons regularly pause, even though it’s very tense and there’s a lot of adrenaline flowing in an emergency situation, but the surgeons who are able to pause and take stock of the situation, see what’s going right with the patient, see what’s going wrong and then update their behavior accordingly are much more successful and have fewer deaths than those who sort of charge ahead and either just act purely on instinct the whole time or just don’t stop and take stock of the situation regularly.

Brett McKay: Something that surprised me with the theater was how close to the deadline, the final deadline, opening night, they were updating things.

Christopher Cox: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay: In some cases it would be like the night before. They’d like… I think, Hello, Dolly. You gave the example of Hello, Dolly.

Christopher Cox: Right.

Brett McKay: I think it’s one of the all time greatest best-selling Broadway musicals and that like the song that everyone knows Hello, Dolly for, it was like written like the week before or just a few nights before the play went on.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. I mean, that was the show that got updated continually throughout the whole process before it went to Broadway. And yeah they wrote one of the most famous songs. Actually, it’s probably the second most famous song from Hello, Dolly. The most famous is Hello, Dolly, but there’s a song called Before the parade passes by. And they wrote it the night before the performance. And at three in the morning, the composer was in his hotel room, Carol Channing, who was the actress was there too and the director was there and then they wrote it on the spot, or the composer wrote it on the spot, and they performed it and then they sort of knew they had a hit on their hands right there and danced around the room saying, “That’s it, that’s it.” [chuckle] And yeah, I mean, so what does it have to do with sensemaking and updating? And it’s like, they saw the audience like growing a little bit bored in the middle of the musical. And they said, “Okay, we need to solve this problem.” And they stayed up all night, solving it. And then, the rest is history. It became a total smash hit.

Brett McKay: And they wouldn’t have figured it out if they didn’t have those multiple deadlines, those multiple practice runs that had deadlines themselves. They wouldn’t have been able to…

Christopher Cox: Yeah.

Brett McKay: They wouldn’t have been able to figure it out.

Christopher Cox: Exactly, well, I mean, you can imagine a scenario in which if the theater doesn’t… Or didn’t work the way that it does, you have a lousy performance, and if there wasn’t this system in place where basically everyone sits around after it and gives notes and talks about what went right and what went wrong, people would just say like, “Oh, well, that was bad. Maybe tomorrow will be better.” And they don’t change anything. So because the theater has such a sort of codified system of sensemaking, that’s why that play was successful. And why so many plays are successful, the system creates the success.

Brett McKay: So one of my favorite parts of the book, you went undercover with Best Buy, you became an employee at Best Buy. This is sort of like, what’s her name? The Nickel And Dimed Lady. Barbara.

Christopher Cox: Yeah. Barbara Ehrenreich.

Brett McKay: Ehrenreich.

Christopher Cox: A huge inspiration. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Right. So you did this, you got a job at Best Buy, but it was the weeks before Black Friday. What were you hoping to learn about deadlines by working for Best Buy during Black Friday? 

Christopher Cox: Well, so Black Friday was the deadline that I was interested in. It’s like, oh this is the biggest sales day of the year for Best Buy and for a lot of retailers, and it’s a pretty dramatic change in business as usual. So an average day at Best Buy or at the store, I ended up working at sales are at one tenth of what they are on Black Friday. So how do you prepare for 10 times the number of customers, 10 times the number of revenue on a single day. And I love Barbara Ehrenreich and she went to go work for like a Home Depot type store for her book. But at first I tried to go in through the front door. I like called Best Buy and said, “I want to come look at what you do to prepare.” But they just… They didn’t really respond. And after about a year of waiting and asking, I was like, all right, well, I gotta try a different way to report this story. And so I applied for a job. I applied to work at a store out on Long Island in New York and I got the job. Thank goodness. And joined the staff. I joined the TV department, so… Or the home theater department as we called it. And I learned to sell flat screen TVs and speakers, and then got to watch what happened when Black Friday itself rolled around. I had about three weeks on the job before I was thrown into the total chaos of… Well, not total chaos, but the high stakes situation of Black Friday.

Brett McKay: And so what did they do? And what did their process look like leading up to Black Friday to get ready for it? Did they have multiple deadlines? I mean, did they do the same sort of things we’ve been talking about? 

Christopher Cox: Yeah. Some of that. They have a big sort of dry run. So that it’s a little bit like a soft deadline with teeth. So they had like… They gather the whole staff, I think it was two weeks before Black Friday and sort of run through how the day is going to work. But the most important thing they do is they sort of… They rebuild the store basically to handle this big deadline. So normally the store is you can freely walk from one part to the other, but to handle the crowds on Black Friday, they divided it into sections. So computers has its own checkout and its own sort of roped off area and TVs have their own area and appliances and mobile devices and gaming. And that’s mainly for crowd control, like it is to keep people flowing. And the things that you see on like the news where people get trampled or the big crowd has crashed into the doors, that’s what they’re trying to avoid, and that’s one strategy they use to do that.

The other thing they did. So there’s a school of social science that talks about what’s called interdependence. So it’s like how much a store or any organization, how much the employees rely upon each other to complete their tasks. So Best Buy normally is what’s called… Had pooled interdependence. So basically every employee was working for himself or herself and their sales were tracked separately. On Black Friday and only for Black Friday, they changed that system so that there are no tracked sales, every employee relies on the other employees to complete a sale. So it’s like basically impossible to sell a TV to someone all the way through. So you always, you have to hand it off from one employee to the next in order to complete the process. And so by increasing interdependence within the store, it becomes… The whole store becomes more efficient. And they have to be efficient on that day or else they’re not going to get through the day. They’re not gonna be able serve every customer that wants to buy something.

Brett McKay: So how was working at Best Buy on Black Friday? Was it exhausting? 

Christopher Cox: It was absolutely exhausting, Best Buy controlled the process about as well as they could, but you’re still dealing with thousands of people. And it’s tough. It’s a long shift and there’s no downtime. You basically are fighting off one customer to serve the other, or having to say, please wait one minute again and again and again to everyone. But eventually we made our way all the way through. And also like Black Friday has sort of expanded its reach, so that takes over half our Thanksgiving too. So when I worked there, I started on Thanksgiving afternoon and then worked all the way through about 2:00 AM that night. And then the next day came in in the morning and worked that full Black Friday. And yeah, by the end, I was ready to tender my resignation. [chuckle]

Brett McKay:And do they do like an after action report after it’s like, here’s what went well, here’s what went bad that we can change for next year.

Christopher Cox: They don’t do that with the regular employees, but the management team does that.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Christopher Cox: And then they definitely do it at that sort of a dry run meeting that comes right before Black Friday. They said, “Okay, last year, this is what happened last year. These were our numbers.” And that’s one other thing that’s worth mentioning about Best Buy and Black Friday is they set goals for themselves on how much they want to sell and they make them difficult and concrete. And there’s a lot of evidence that the… From this field called goal setting theory, that those are crucial insights to have, you can’t just say we want to sell as many TVs as possible. You have to say like, no, we want to sell this number of TVs and then make that target a real number, but also a little bit of a reach. And that is a way to motivate your employees. It’s a way to sort of meet the goal that you want to reach.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We see that with JFK and his Moonshot, right. Choose to go to the moon in this decade.

Christopher Cox: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think that when he said that people were probably saying, that’s impossible, that like that’s a very tight deadline and yet because he set that deadline, I mean, they did it in July of 1969, right. So they just got it in pretty much under the wire. And I think there’s something about the audacity of that goal, how hard it was that motivated NASA and everyone else to get it done.

Brett McKay: So you end the book talking about a type of deadline that I never heard of, but I’m intrigued by it. It’s called “Stochastic Deadlines.”

Christopher Cox: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay: What are Stochastic Deadlines? 

Christopher Cox: Stochastic is just like a fancy economist word for random. And so I was reading papers back to the Deadline Effect, the negative version of it. I was reading some economic papers and there was one that talked about the effect of a Stochastic Deadlines on the Deadline Effect. So basically if you… Let’s say you have a negotiation, if you impose a deadline that’s triggered by an event that will happen at a random time, the deadline effect basically disappears.

Brett McKay:So what’s an example of that.

Christopher Cox: Well, so this economist talked about online auctions, like eBay type auctions. And if the deadline for the end of the auction was somewhat random, like if neither party could know exactly when it would end, they were more likely to find the price, the final agreed upon price quickly. ‘Cause they knew they couldn’t wait till the last minute. And so what does that have to do with everyday life? Well, to talk about that, I went and embedded with a unit of the Air Force, called the 621st Contingency Response Wing. And they’re basically the disaster preparedness gurus of the Air Force. They are the unit that you send in if there’s a hurricane or if there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world. And basically their job is first and foremost to arrive and set up an airfield so that relief supplies can start flying in. And so that’s a hard job. That’s very complicated. It could be dangerous, but when I was there, everyone… And I was there right before a hurricane hit, Hurricane Florence was making its way towards the East Coast, everyone on base was totally relaxed, totally chill. And I eventually figured out, oh, these things are connected. This is a Stochastic Deadline. This is a random deadline like this… We never know when the earthquake is going to strike, you never know exactly when a hurricane is going to develop.

And so the solution that this unit of the Air Force hit upon was to just maintain a very well defined system of preparedness so that they were ready to deploy at any moment. And so that was it. I was witnessing the deadline effect being vanquished by this random deadline.

Brett McKay: Have you been able to implement Stochastic or Random Deadlines in your own life? 

Christopher Cox: Yeah. Well, I mean, the lesson that I took away from that Air Force unit was basically like to try to remain in this high state of preparedness and productivity consistently. So it’s not that deadlines in my life have become random, it’s just that if you apply all the lessons of meeting deadlines that I learned from the book and consistently throughout your life, then you’ll never feel stressed, you’ll never feel crunched, you’re always on top of things.

Brett McKay: And I mean, have you… Have your deadline setting, has it gotten better since you wrote this book? I mean, you were pretty good at it as an editor, you had to be, but has it gotten better? 

Christopher Cox: Yeah, I think it was becoming a magazine editor that made me good at it. I’ve gotten better by doing this research. In college, I was as miserable as all the rest of us or almost. I was frequently working up until the last minute. I think it was working as an editor that really made me appreciate both like the power of the deadline and also the way you can use systems to force yourself to get things done on time. The biggest change for me from reading this book was that insight from the census is that like, oh, if you set a deadline uncomfortably close, if you shorten a deadline, you’re more likely to finish it. And so that actually influenced my deadline for the book. I picked a date that felt just a little bit on the edge of my comfort when I was going to turn it in. And I think that helped me. It meant that I couldn’t drag things out. It meant that I had to like plan the whole thing out very deliberately, doing that right to left planning. And writing a book is a big project, but I got it done on time. And that is actually fairly rare in the book world. So I was glad that I had read the research that I had to make it possible.

Brett McKay: And what do you say to someone who’s listening to this podcast right now. What’s like one thing that you think they can start implementing today where they’ll see immediate result with like how they create or craft their deadlines.

Christopher Cox: Well, if you’re setting a deadline for yourself, again, the first step is to make it a concrete deadline, don’t say as soon as possible, pick a date, pick a time, you could learn from the planning fallacy and think about the last time you did something that was similar and then sort of working in the opposite direction from that optimism, then push the deadline forward, set it a little bit earlier than you think you might want to. And that is simply just… That’s going to be that nudge that pushes you into action sooner rather than later.

Brett McKay:Well, Chris, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work? 

Christopher Cox: Well, the book is available from bookstores everywhere or Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And if they want to check out my website, there’s more information there, that’s deadline-effect.com.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Chris Cox, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Christopher Cox: Thank you, Brett. Good to be with you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Christopher Cox. He’s the author of the book, The Deadline Effect, it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about the book at the website deadline-effect.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/deadline where you find links to resources, and we delve deeper into this topic.

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Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Check at our website at artofmanliness.com where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you could think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code and “MANLINESS” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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