Benefits of deadlines

March 25, 2011 BY danariely

Here is a letter I got a few days ago:


Dear Dan,

I recently had an experience that I thought you might be able to appreciate and wondered if you had any thoughts on it.

Last fall (early October) I got into a small car accident. It was my fault and I was ticketed for not controlling the speed of my vehicle. As a part of my plea with the courts I agreed to take a defensive driving course. The last time I took one of these, I selected one Saturday that worked for me and met with a teacher in a classroom for 6 hours one day. But in my state (Texas), they don’t have face-to-face courses anymore; they only have online courses. Of course, the court can’t tell you where to go to sign up for these courses, you have to find it on your own. There are LOTS of options. In addition, taking the course basically requires a commitment of 6 hours, but there are no scheduled class times. Instead, you choose whenever you want to begin your course.

I teach at a Community College fresh out of graduate school. I’ve got a family and I’m super busy. Essentially, this means that I never have a block of 6 hours to devote to anything. As a result, I put off this course for longer than I should have and am now in contempt of court and have been summoned to appear in a little over a week. Today, actually, I’m taking the course…

Anyway, I feel like this is a perfect example of how the courts think they’ve made this process easier, when in fact they have shifted a lot of the decision-making burdens on the plaintiffs, making compliance a lot more difficult. I’m not a delinquent, but I feel like the burdens of completing this task have turned me into one. I don’t have access to data, but I’d be willing to bet that delinquencies are much higher under the new system as opposed to the old.

Unfortunately, irrationally, and procrastinatingly yours,



Dear Nathan,

The same basic thing happened a while ago in the scientific community.  The organization that funded science in the UK decided that instead of asking people to submit grants by 2 specific dates each year  (which is that the US funding agencies do), and get people all stressed over the deadlines — they will let people submit grant at any time and they will review the grants using the same 2 times a year.  What happened?  Much like your story, fewer grants were submitted and eventually the Brits changed back to the twice a year setup.

All this is to show us how useful deadlines can be.

Irrationally yours