Motivate Yourself

How to Motivate Yourself Without Hard Deadlines

In the art of productivity, a key skill is being able to motivate yourself without hard deadlines. These are the deadlines that if you don’t finish on time, you’re screwed. And if you’ve ever scrambled to get your taxes finished in April, you can see why relying on them for motivation isn’t a good idea.

Hard deadlines tend to clump up. If your “soft” deadlines, or deadlines you impose on your own schedule are just as motivating as hard deadlines, you become the one in control. Instead of having your schedule be at the mercy of your boss, professor or the world, you can decide how to finish work in advance so you don’t drive yourself crazy.

Hardening Soft Deadlines

How hard are your soft deadlines? When you decide to finish a project today, how likely are you to finish it? Some people can effectively use these self-imposed deadlines to get work done early. Other people make the deadline, but end up procrastinating until a real deadline forces them to work.

At first glance, the difference between these people might just look like different personalities. One is more disciplined, the other is lazy. Some people can motivate themselves, others need outside pressure.

But even if you are a chronic procrastinator, you can harden your soft deadlines. A few years ago my soft deadlines didn’t have nearly the same weight they do today. By tweaking how I setup my soft deadlines, I figured out how to use them to combat procrastination.

Be the Master of Your To-Do List

I’ve found there are only three main keys for making harder soft deadlines:

  1. Set Reasonable Expectations.
  2. Cycling Hard and Easy Days.
  3. Schedule Calibration.

Set Reasonable Expectations

Have you ever done this calculation? You realize if you wake up at 7:00 and go to bed at 11:30, there are about 16 hours in the day. So you figure you can squeeze in about 14-15 hours of work in, with a bit of time for lunch and dinner. If you’ve done this before, ask yourself if you’ve ever finished that to-do list in one day.

Trying to be a deadline masochist doesn’t make you more productive. Trying to compress too much work into a soft-deadline will cause it to snap. Instead, use these rules when planning out your soft-deadlines:

  • Would I be able to do this easily, with the encouragement of a deadline? -> If your answer is yes, then the deadline is probably too easy.
  • Could I accomplish this with a medium amount of effort and motivation? -> If your answer is no, or that you would need a lot of effort to finish, scale back.

Remember we’re talking about soft deadlines here. Sometimes a hard deadline forces you to work to exhaustion. This might be a 2000 word essay you haven’t started, but is due tomorrow morning. Unless you can get an extension, the essay needs to be finished.

Since soft deadlines have no external reason why they have to be done today instead of tomorrow (except your sanity), trying to be a hero isn’t productive.

Cycle Hard and Easy Days

I work on a six day cycle. This means I do all of my school, blogging, Toastmasters and project work six days of the week with one day off. I have an intense schedule, yet I know many people who have much lighter schedules that still feel they need to work every day. If you don’t define boundaries between work and life, you’ll feel guilty every time you want to take a break.

Cycling hard and easy days ensures your soft deadlines remain meaningful. If you reward an incredibly hard day of work with an equally hard day, your soft deadlines won’t motivate you. Instead, if you put a slower day (or better yet, a day off completely) after a particularly difficult day, it will keep your energy

Schedule Calibration

Last week, I wrote about schedule calibration as a means to harden your soft deadlines. The basic idea behind schedule calibration is that you train yourself to always do what is on your to-do list, but no more. As you condition this habit of finishing exactly what you’ve planned, your soft-deadlines become more meaningful.

Instead of calibrating their schedules, most people do the complete opposite. When they have an incredibly hard day, they cross off items from their to-do list and push them into tomorrow. When they have an easy day, they feel guilty and add more work to do.

Once you’ve achieved a high level of schedule calibration, you have an extra willpower resource for emergencies. If you want to get done a task tomorrow that requires a lot of work, you can set a difficult deadline, knowing that you will be committed to finishing it. If you aren’t calibrated, then you’ll give up early.

The other benefit of calibration is it removes the guilt from wanting to relax. By intentionally setting light to-do lists, you can have easy days without feeling you need to get more work done. Calibration outsources your willpower to soft deadlines.

If you can follow these three steps of setting reasonable deadlines, cycling the hard and easy days, and calibrating your schedule, you can save yourself a lot of anxiety. Instead of waiting for your boss, professor or team members to force you to work, you can be the master of your own schedule.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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