“A Journalist Is Stimulated By a Deadline. He Writes Worse When He Has Time.”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Dave Shiflett headlined “‘Countdown to Zero Hour”:

Those who reside in the rustic belt often marvel when squirrels, possums and other quadrupeds wait until cars are right on them before commencing a mad dash across the road….Yet humans are also known to wait until the last minute to tackle whatever task is at hand. While miscalculations rarely reduce us to roadkill, they can have negative consequences. The good news, according to Christopher Cox in “The Deadline Effect,” is that we can make deadlines work for us instead of the other way around.

Mr. Cox, a longtime editor and writer, explains that the deadline was “originally the line on a printing press beyond which no type could be set”; during the Civil War, the “dead-line” was a boundary surrounding the stockade, “outside of which any prisoner would be shot.” Like nooses, deadlines can concentrate the mind. The problem is that, “as soon as you set a deadline, work tends to get delayed until right before time expires.” Rushed work can be shoddy; rushed deals can be ruinous.

One solution is the simple lie. An editor can issue a July deadline when October is the real drop-dead date. This strategy might even improve the final product, at least according to Viennese writer Karl Kraus: “A journalist is stimulated by a deadline. He writes worse when he has time.”

A better solution, Mr. Cox advises, is to set a “soft deadline with teeth.” These often amount to a rigorous rehearsal or dry run in advance of a hard deadline….

Mr. Cox includes a discussion of the fine art of procrastination, without which deadlines might not be necessary. Once denounced from the pulpit, this perennial predilection is now considered an example of “hyperbolic discounting.” This means, Mr. Cox explains, that “we exaggeratedly (hyperbolically) underestimate (discount) the value of future gains and losses. Thus the satisfaction of finishing a project (a future reward) stands no chance against the fun of playing hooky for a day.”…

Mr. Cox sums up his book in seven words: “Set a deadline, the earlier the better.” Valuable advice, no doubt. Many readers will also appreciate learning that they’ve been suffering from “hyperbolic discounting” all these years, when they had simply assumed they were mere slackers.

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