3 “Deadline” Techniques to Trick Your Brain to Work More Effectively

This is the sixth post in a series about planning your best year. Earlier posts focused on goal setting and scheduling time on your calendar. For more information on those posts, see the links at the end.

As a newspaper reporter, I learned this trick early on: having a deadline is a terrific way to accomplish a lot in very little time. When something newsworthy happens, there’s not much time to hammer out a story and submit it before the next guy beats you to the scoop. You learn how to report the basics— “Just the facts, ma’am.”— and leave out anything superfluous.

It works the same in the office: when you have a deadline to turn in a report, complete a profile, gather the statistics—whatever—you have a tendency to ignore everything but the essentials.

Three productivity strategies can help you create the feeling of a deadline, and trick your brain into working more effectively: timeboxing, Pomodoro, and work sprints.

In addition to laser focus on the task at hand, other benefits include:

Avoid Parkinson’s Law:

Parkinson’s Law states that the work expands to fill the time. You’ve seen it in practice: if you have a week to get a report in, it can sometimes take a week to actually accomplish it. Limit the time for completing a task and it will get done in less time.

Stop Procrastination

There will always be tasks we don’t want to do. We avoid them because we think they’ll take a long time, or because they’re unpleasant, or because we just don’t want to do them. Yet, they need to be done. By setting a time limit on a “terrible” task we can often find the motivation it takes to complete it.

Finish More Tasks

Maybe you’ve heard this old saying: Perfect is the enemy of done. We leave many tasks unfinished by trying to make the end product perfect—it’s the tweaking that takes so much time. When we limit the amount of time we have to spend completing a project, we have less time to “tweak.”  The project simply gets done, and we are left with more time to accomplish more tasks.

How These Techniques Work


In timeboxing, you determine how long you think a specific task will take, and then allot only that amount of time to get it done. For example, you might allot 20 minutes before your workday begins to review and answer email. Or, in the evening, you might give yourself 30 minutes to play on social media before you unplug for the evening. This “box of time” is then scheduled on your calendar, creating both a meeting for yourself and a deadline to complete the task.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is similar to timeboxing in that you set a limited amount of time to accomplish a task. It was developed by a college student, Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. Instead of determining a separate time limit for various tasks, you work on a single project for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break. Cirillo called this 25-minute time block a pomodoro, from the Italian word for tomato, because he used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to measure his intervals.

You can stack pomodoros, completing several in a row, if one is not long enough to complete the task.

Work Sprints

Work sprints, like pomodoros, set a fixed amount of time to accomplish a task, as well as a set break period after. The difference is that — like timeboxing — you choose what the sprint time will be: 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour, etc., as well as the break interval in between. The time should be set according to your own limitations. Some people will work more effectively with twenty-minute sprints, others with forty. I recommend trying the Pomodoro first, and adjust the time until you achieve the results you seek.

Like pomodoros, you can complete several sprints in a row to accomplish your task.


The beauty of these similar methods is that you can mix and match. Timeboxing is a fantastic office method because it works well with a calendar. Schedule your time boxes on your calendar, so that co-workers won’t schedule you for meetings during that time. Group like tasks together on a single day on your calendar to take advantage of economies of scale—statistics on Monday, for example, research on Tuesday, etc.

Pomodoro and sprints are good for accomplishing long, unpleasant tasks such as weeding files: spend 25 minutes every Friday in January to weed records and file miscellaneous papers, for example.

Experiment to find what works best for you.

If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in others in the series:

And related:

Kelly Harmon is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. By day, she is the Webmaster of the National Agricultural Library, where she spends her time analyzing web statistics, supporting the various NAL web sites, and writing the occasional article for Tellus Magazine, produced by the Agricultural Research Service, USDA. By night, she is an award-winning journalist and author, and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. She’s a bit of a word-nerd, and relies on her planner to keep life sane. You can read her posts here.

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Avatar photo Mark Hensch

These are awesome insights Kelly! More people need to hear about Parkinson’s Law, so thanks for sharing information about it!

Kelly A. Harmon

Thanks, Mark! What I find interesting is that we all know of it instinctively, yet we get caught in the trap a lot! Example: as kids we learned how to clean up our rooms super quick in order to maximize playtime. I wonder if we could structure the business workday differently to take advantage of focused time/downtime?