Why Deadlines Really Do Get the Job Done

It makes sense that the word “deadline” has its roots in Civil War prisons


What is it about deadlines that gets the job done?

To understand why they can are so motivating, I took a peek at the etymology of the word, “deadline.” Etymology, by the way, in narrative terms, is the “origin story” of words and their changing (or evolving) meaning through time.

For example, “the whole nine yards” has nothing to do with football. Its derivation is thought to come from WWII, wherein gunners would “give ‘em the full nine yards” by firing an aircraft’s entire ammo belt at the enemy. The belt was nine yards long.

Strangely, “rule of thumb” was the general rule applied in England to husbands who were only allowed to beat their wives with a stick as wide as their thumb. That should give you pause the next time you invoke that expression. Especially if you have stubby thumbs.

But I digress. “Deadline” has its roots in prisons. A “deadline” was used in Civil War jails to deter prisoners from passing over a threshold beyond which they would be shot. It was a literal “dead line.” So the penalty for crossing a deadline, as it were, was severe.

Today, however, deadlines have a figurative connotation. But do they lose their efficacy once we blow past them? Then you’re just into that I’m-past-the-deadline no-man’s-land. If it’s not life or death, is there much impetus to hand in work when it’s past due?

Once you’re beyond a deadline, does an extension (with a new deadline) foot the bill? Is it moving the goal posts? Is it prolonging the inevitable? And why do we choose to work right up to the last possible minute? Is it our modern equivalent of living dangerously?

Not long ago, I submitted an online application for a panel I was proposing and I got it in just under the wire (as it happens, “under the wire” is an expression from horse racing). As I attempted to submit my proposal online with ten minutes to spare, the system shut me out. No fair! I’ve still got 10 minutes!

I emailed the website as did enough last-minute applicants to get them to extend the deadline — for 48 hours. With my new deadline so far off, I continued to work on my proposal … right up until the last minute! Granted, this was the weekend. I had other things to do, but I submitted in the nick of time. (“Nick of time” is an interesting idiom wherein a “nick” was a precision notch used in clockworks; “nick” meant a precise moment in time so “of time” is actually superfluous.)

There’s an adage that says, “A task takes as long as the time available to complete it.” I did manage to do my best work with the time at my disposal, but without a deadline I might still be tweaking. That’s why deadlines are an imperative. They get us to focus. And focused energy yields positive results.

One television writer told me she did a page one rewrite of an entire script in a 24 hour period. In TV, that’s par for the course — the show must go on and it can’t go on without a script. If we had a deadline for all of our important stuff, we might get more important stuff done.

Truth is, our lives are governed by deadlines. There are deadlines to pay bills, renew passports, protest a red light camera ticket, file a story, make a blog post, deliver your director’s cut, release a film, hand in a budget, submit a proposal, apply to a school, buy a concert ticket, cash in our miles, redeem a discount… Some we honor, some not so much.

Warner Bros. adopted a hard deadline tactic with its screenwriters and producers in an effort to get expected scripted work in on time with dire professional and financial consequences if the deadline is missed. Despite much hemming and hawing on the part of screenwriters and their reps, we’ve accepted it. And it appears to be working. An effective use of deadline — high stakes, harsh consequences.

Deadlines. They work. They matter. They get us to focus. And maybe they get the best work from us. For as much as we might fear them or resent them or procrastinate because of them, ultimately, we all understand their meaning.

So you see, Hollywood has more in common with civil war prisons than we realize: productive civil war prisoners get stuff done and don’t get dead. Remember that the next time you’re penning a project for Warner Bros.