Maroš Servátka of Australia’s Macquarie Business School and three coresearchers—Stephen Knowles, Trudy Sullivan, and Murat Genç, all from New Zealand’s University of Otago—invited 3,276 people to take a short online survey in exchange for a $10 donation to charity. Some participants were given a one-week deadline, some were given a one-month deadline, and some were given no deadline at all. Members of the last group returned more surveys than those in the other two groups did, and they also responded more quickly. The conclusion: To keep people from procrastinating, don’t give them a deadline.
Professor Servátka, defend your research.
Servátka: Deadlines motivate us to do things we might otherwise put off, but the relationship isn’t always clear-cut. For example, although a long deadline theoretically gives us more time to finish a task, it often means that we postpone it over and over until eventually we forget all about it. Indeed, only 5.5% of the people who were given a monthlong deadline returned our survey, compared with 6.6% of those who were given just a week. But people who were given no deadline had the highest response rate of all: 8.3%. And they were more likely than the others to return the survey within three days.
HBR: I can see why people under a tight deadline would respond better than those with the luxury of a month. But why would the lack of pressure get the best results?
A deadline signals the importance and urgency of a task, so not surprisingly, people often interpret a long deadline as permission to delay. You might assume that the lack of a deadline would be viewed in much the same light. But in fact people tend to interpret it in just the opposite way, as meaning “Get this done as soon as possible!” The urgency and pressure are implied. Critically, we didn’t tell people that they had an unlimited amount of time to send the survey in; we simply didn’t mention a date. Theoretically, the two are the same, but in practice they get very different results.
Surely there are people for whom that’s not true—people who would think, If they didn’t ask for this by a certain date, they don’t care when I get around to it.
Some people did seem to interpret the lack of a deadline that way. Technically, our experiment is still running, given that we didn’t set an end date for the no-deadline people. Occasionally we check to see whether any additional surveys have come in. And we have gotten a few really late responses from participants in that group. One person returned the survey on day 52. Another returned it on day 145! These are people who are clearly procrastinators, and because they weren’t given a deadline, they could keep postponing and postponing. Perhaps they belatedly came across our solicitation letter after having forgotten about our request—we sent physical letters rather than emails specifically to create natural reminders. But that’s a conjecture; we didn’t test it.
All that said, those very late responses represented a tiny minority. Almost half the people in the no-deadline group who returned the survey did so right away; it’s clear that their superior response rate wasn’t driven by belated recall. By comparison, there were very few prompt responses from people who were given a month to send the survey in, supporting the notion that the main factor affecting response time was a sense of urgency—or the lack thereof.
Did personal traits affect the speed or likelihood of responding?
Because we selected participants randomly from the New Zealand electoral roll, we had data only on age and gender. Controlling for those did not affect the results, although somewhat more women than men responded, and more people ages 36 to 65.
Thinking about personal traits more broadly, procrastination comes from what’s known as the present bias, in which the here and now feels disproportionately more important than the future does. Because of that, the so-called opportunity costs of completing a task—the time it will take out of our day—appear to be smaller when they’re down the road, so many people decide to postpone. But there’s huge variety in how people respond to the present bias. Some recognize the potential pitfall and compensate by doing the task immediately or by setting reminders. Others—often naively—assume that they’ll remember on their own. It would be interesting to explore whether the absence of a deadline is interpreted differently by those two types. The first group would most likely perceive it as indicating urgency, but among the second it might lead to even greater procrastination.
People who filled out your survey were rewarded by a donation to charity, not by something for themselves. Why that choice?
If a task benefits us personally, we can assess its importance on our own; we’re not dependent on an externally imposed deadline to communicate its urgency. When the primary gain goes to someone else, standard economic theory holds that we’re less likely to prioritize it, and so procrastination becomes a bigger factor.
How should people use your findings?
I’d expect the no-deadline tactic to have the strongest traction when the task mainly benefits someone else and when the urgency is clearly implied. That could include volunteering to help people in need—giving money to organizations supporting refugees from Ukraine, say, or donating blood after a natural disaster. Charities typically don’t set an end date when soliciting donations, and our experiment suggests that’s the optimal strategy. When a campaign’s duration does need to be limited, as when a donor offers matching grants that expire after a certain date, a relatively short deadline will serve the charity best.
The findings also have implications for anyone conducting surveys; response rates should be higher and faster without a stated deadline, as they were for us. Omitting a deadline could be useful in a personal context, too—for example, when asking a spouse to complete a do-it-yourself project that’s important primarily to you. And in an organizational context, this approach could get good results when you’re requesting a favor from a colleague, such as asking for feedback on a proposal. If you don’t say when you need the favor done, your colleague is more likely to attend to it right away.
As a magazine editor, I’m constantly giving people deadlines. Should I stop?
That would be very risky! Our results by no means imply that you never want to give people a deadline. If you didn’t set deadlines for something as complex as preparing an article, people might not be able to prioritize correctly. It all depends on context.