Why I paid for an exam I hadn’t finished preparing for

Whenever we fail to get started on a task, it’s often because:

  1. We do not see how the task fits into our life goals (or we don’t have a goal in the first place).
  2. We fear failing at the task.
  3. We do not have the pressure of a deadline.

Today, I will be focusing on the third reason: Understanding the power of a deadline. Anyone who was once a student understands the phenomenon known as student syndrome. Simply put, work expands to take the amount of time allowed to finish it. If an assignment is given on Monday to be submitted on Tuesday, students find a way to do it. If, however, the deadline for submission is Saturday, most people will find a way to expand the work required till Friday. A few won’t even start till Friday evening. What happened? It was the same task. The only difference was the deadline.

A blackboard. The words "Don't miss the deadline" are written on it in white chalk
It’s due tomorrow

People find a way of finishing tasks quicker when there is a deadline attached, especially if a missed deadline comes with a penalty. You won’t be late paying your business taxes when you know the Government can slap you with a hefty fine. You come to class early when you know the lecturer won’t allow you inside the lecture hall once he has arrived.

You can use the looming threat of a deadline to get you started on a task you have been dragging on. One of the goals I put on my personal development plan for 2019 was to take my PRINCE2 exams. For those who don’t know PRINCE2 is a project management certification. I got a copy of the study material required for the exam at the end of January and made a study plan. One week later, I realised I hadn’t studied as much as I should have. Even though I wanted to write my exam before the end of the first Quarter, I had no pressure to stick to my study plan. I still had two months after all.

I realised without extra pressure, I could keep dragging my feet over studying. I called the examination institute to book my exam date towards the end of February and paid the exam fees, which were non-refundable. Now I had no choice but to stick to the study plan and pass my exams. The alternative was to lose a large sum of money.

A stopwatch set to Deadline
Closer with every tick

By registering for the exams, booking a date and paying a non-refundable fee, I had created a deadline for the task and attached a penalty to missing that deadline. All these served as an incentive to stick to the plan I had already made. The good news is I sat for my exams and passed.

Having a reasonable deadline lets you plan an event from start to finish and follow through. Having to pay a penalty for a missed deadline, ensures you will do everything in your power to finish a task. To use a slightly cynical example, people don’t miss sending in regular reports to their boss because they know when it’s due. They also know their boss has a lot to say during their annual review.

A businessman running with a briefcase. There is a clock in the background.
He has a deadline he is determined not to miss

The next time you find yourself not making as much progress as you would like to on a task, ask yourself how does this task fit into my goals? If it’s in line with what you would like to achieve, ask yourself if there is a deadline for achievement. If there isn’t, you should set one immediately. Sometimes, the pressure is enough to get you started. If it doesn’t, attach a penalty to missing the deadline. It could be as simple as promising to transfer ₦5,000 to the account of a friend who can be your accountability partner. Just make sure you choose a friend who you know will hunt you to the ends of the earth to collect their money if you miss that deadline. Better yet, find one who will tell the whole world he owes you ₦5,000 and you have refused to pay. Good luck.

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