Knowing when a task is going to end makes us perform better, according to a new study

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Lauren Geall
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According to a new study, knowing when a task is going to end has the potential to boost our performance – and it could explain why deadlines are such an important motivator at work.

Throughout my time as a student and a journalist, there’s one truth I’ve had to learn to accept: I perform best under pressure.

Back in school, I would, without exception, leave all my homework until the very last minute. Some of my best university essays were written after midnight the night before they were due. Without the motivation of a deadline, I find it incredibly difficult to get things done – I need to know when things are going to end in order to be able to start.

And according to a new study by a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University, I’m not the only one who finds deadlines a particularly effective motivator when it comes to getting my work done well and on time.

The study, which was published in the journal Cognition, found that, when we have advance knowledge of when a task is going to end, we perform better at it.

As part of an initial experiment, the researchers recruited 64 graduate students to take part in a series of trials in which they had to switch between four different activities. They were then asked to complete these tasks in 10 blocks of 240 trials. They were also informed that those scoring in the top 25% when it came to accuracy would receive a monetary reward.

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However, what they didn’t know was that the researchers had split them into two groups, with one of the groups being told that the experiment was split into blocks and being given information about how many blocks of the total they had completed as they worked their way through them, while the other group was told nothing. Neither groups were given feedback on how well they were performing, either.

After each three blocks of tasks, the participants were also asked how tired, bored or energetic they felt to measure their fatigue. 

The results were particularly interesting. Participants who knew when the task would end had higher levels of performance (measured by their speed and accuracy), compared to those who had no idea when the end of the tasks was coming. 

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New research has revealed why putting time restraints on our goals is so important.

The researchers also noticed that, because the participants in the first group knew how much work they had left, their performance spiked as they neared the end of the task, suggesting that that final boost of energy many of us seem to experience just before a deadline is related to our knowledge that the end is in sight.

The participants who knew the end was coming also spent less time taking breaks towards the end than the other participants.

What this tells us is that, as we already know, deadlines are an incredibly effective tool when it comes to getting things done. When we know exactly when a task is going to end, we’re less likely to spend time conserving energy and more likely to give that task everything we’ve got. It also helps that we know our reward (whether that’s an extended break, the end of the working day or a really nice lunch) is just around the corner.

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While this new research is interesting because it confirms a phenomenon many of us have already experienced, it also shows why setting time restraints on our goals is such an important step in getting them done.

Giving yourself personal deadlines is also a great way to promote eustress – or good stress – because they give you the sense of adrenaline and excitement you need to get things done quickly and efficiently.

It’s why the SMART model for setting goals is so effective – by setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and, most importantly, time-based, we give ourselves the pressure and motivation we need to achieve our goals. 

Now that’s another tool to add to our belts.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.