The other day I missed the deadline to renew my parking permit and was slapped with a hefty fine.
My first thought: Serves me right for dragging my feet.
My second thought: This isn’t fair! Why should I pay up when global statesmen are missing deadline after deadline with apparent impunity?
I cannot be the only person wondering that right now. When it comes to meeting deadlines, the world’s power brokers are hardly setting a shining example. Whether negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, an economic bailout for Greece or a cap on carbon emissions, they seem trapped in the same pantomime of procrastination.
Granted, a final deal eventually was reached with Iran, but only after years of talks punctuated by missed deadlines. Which is why we are all so familiar with the deadline-buster’s version of the perp walk: bleary-eyed and short-tempered, suits rumpled and creased, male jaws darkened with stubble, the negotiators shuffle out of the final session in Vienna or Geneva or Brussels or Washington, vowing to soldier on and hinting that the next deadline will be the last.
After a setback in the talks this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said he was striving to hammer out the best deal possible but would not negotiate “forever.”
Diplomats have a long tradition of flirting with the clock. The winding road to peace in Northern Ireland was paved with so many missed deadlines that I heard one veteran observer recently note: “I’ve been right [down] to the wire more times than an electrician.”
What has changed is that deadline-busting now feels like the norm, which may be a blessing in disguise.
I am an advocate of what has come to be known as the Slow Movement. I travel the world speaking on the benefits of slowing down, taking time and unplugging, often in venues full of people itching to check their phones. To me, the spectacle of world leaders blowing deadlines like teenage slackers feels like a strike against the tyranny of the clock. But it also invites a deeper question: If deadlines can be missed so easily, what is the point of having them at all?
Long ago, honoring a deadline was genuinely a matter of life and death. Most scholars agree that the word was coined to describe the boundary past which inmates were forbidden to venture in Civil War prison camps. Guards fired on those who stepped over the “dead line.”
In the early 20th century, the term made its way into the newspaper world, where it retained its make-or-break menace. But then the word went mainstream, and deadlines became more of a movable feast.
That is certainly the case in our private lives. Just look at how often we disregard “deadlines” by arriving late to social engagements. One reason: Smartphones have made it easy to shrug off tardiness with a stream of cheery updates: “Sorry, bad traffic, running late!” “Just a few minutes now!” “Almost there!”
Even in the workplace, not all deadlines are set in stone. This is true in professions where you might least expect it, such as publishing. Most book contracts fix a delivery date, but everyone knows it’s elastic. Some authors even take a perverse pleasure in submitting their manuscripts late. Douglas Adams, the author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” once quipped: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
I am cut from different cloth than Adams, who once had to be locked in a hotel room until he finished a book. Unlike many writers I know, my style has always been to deliver the goods in a calm and timely fashion. Once my deadline is set, I map out what needs to be done and do it.
Nevertheless, I am not above coveting the adrenaline rush and bragging rights generated by a last-minute dash to the finish line. That’s why, in college, I once engineered a deadline panic by leaving a history paper about the Cuban missile crisis unwritten until the night before it was due. As everyone else went to bed, I brewed the first of several pots of coffee and the words started flowing. I enjoyed the buzz of the final sprint and boasting over breakfast with my friends, but the result was a second-rate paper.
The truth is that deadlines are useful. They signal that something is important enough to deserve our immediate attention; they can also focus minds and spur us to action. But too much deadlining can backfire.
Setting do-or-die deadlines, then routinely missing them, is like crying wolf: People lose interest, and the deadlines lose their bite. What’s more, study after study has shown that too much time pressure, whether in the office, the college dorm or the global summit meeting, makes us less creative and more sloppy. Teresa Amabile, professor and director of research at the Harvard Business School, has spent decades studying the workplace, and her conclusion is loud and clear: “Extreme time pressure can stifle creativity.”
Think about it: In the mountain range of human achievement, how many of the highest peaks have been scaled because someone stuck to an all-or-nothing deadline?
No one bullied Albert Einstein to crack the theory of relativity by a fixed date. And the same is true in more recent times: Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web without anyone really breathing down his neck with a stopwatch.
Which brings us to the essential paradox of deadlines. We need them as a cattle prod, but we also need to be able to miss them, and missing them means they’re not really deadlines.
Maybe the time has come to reconsider deadlines altogether. To stop falling into a mind-narrowing panic when they approach. To start using them as a lever not for getting stuff done by a fixed time but for getting it done right.
Kerry seems to have grasped this. When a breakthrough with Iran finally began to seem possible, he refused to play Deadline Dash: “We will not rush,” he said. “And we will not be rushed.”
It’s a good reminder that the clock does not always have the final word, and that missing a deadline is not just for deadbeats.
Carl Honoré is the author of “In Praise of Slowness.” He wrote this article for the New York Times.