Clever Experiment Reveals The Ideal Deadline to Set to Actually Get Stuff Done

Is it better to set tight deadlines or to put them further in the future to give yourself more time to finish the task? Perhaps no deadline is better? A new study asks this question and may surprise you.
The University of Otago researchers in New Zealand selected random participants from the New Zealand electoral rolls to conduct the study. The letter asked each person to fill out an online survey about charitable giving. It took approximately five minutes. They would receive a small reward in the form of a monetary donation that could be donated to World Vision or Salvation Army.

Three mailings were sent, each covering 1,092 individuals: one gave a deadline of 10 business days (so leaving 7-9 business days after delivery), another added three more weeks and one didn't specify any deadline.

Before we reveal the results, you might be able to guess which group received the most responses. A word from the research team in the meantime.

Maro Servtka from Macquarie Business School in Australia says that choosing the right deadlines can signal urgency or importance of the task. This increases the likelihood of completion.

"This is especially important for situations that don't have natural reminders, as people might forget the task if they postpone it.

Curiously, 8.32 percent responded to the survey even though there was no deadline. In this case, it seems like adding urgency to the task was not going to bring back more responses.

The survey was completed by 6.59 percent of respondents who were given a deadline of one week. This includes three additional surveys that were submitted after the deadline. Only 5.53 percent of respondents submitted an online response for those who were given a 30-day deadline.

People who had a one-week deadline or no deadline filled out surveys the fastest. Many of these people completed the survey within the first few days of learning about it.

Although it might seem obvious that more respondents would respond if there was more time, it is interesting to note that deadlines that are too long can make it difficult to communicate urgency and importance.

Researchers wrote in a published paper that the No Deadline treatment had a spike in responses at the beginning, followed by a tail of responses later. The One Month treatment, on the other hand, has almost no responses between days 14 and 27, with a slight spike from days 27 to 30, which is important for our main findings.

"The spike could indicate that a few people are either paying attention or being more sophisticated, and setting an example for others."

This study supports previous research that suggests that forgetful or inattentive individuals have more chances to recall something they meant to do if there is no deadline, especially if there is a physical reminder on the table or fridge.

Keep in mind, however, that this is just one type of task. Deadlines of different lengths could produce different results, if participants were to write essays, fill out tax returns, or get around to painting the bathroom.

The study does show that there is no need to set a deadline in these situations. Charity organizations may want to avoid longer deadlines, such as a month, if they are looking to receive as much public support as possible.

The researchers concluded that this was evidence that specifying a longer deadline, as opposed to a shorter deadline or no deadline, removes urgency to act. This is what people often perceive when they are asked to help.

"People put off the task because they forget or are not attentive. This leads to lower response rates.

Economic Inquiry published the research.