Most popular books about productivity or time management talk about the importance of due dates. You set a due date and it keeps you on track and accountable. Almost all the productivity tools I’ve tried also incorporate due dates.

And on the surface, it makes sense. After all, due dates ensure that I finish my projects when I’m supposed to. Or do they?

What if due dates actually harmed your productivity and sense of success? What if due dates can actually undermine productivity?

In this post, I’m going to show you why due dates can be bad, what you should use instead, and what tools can help you make the change.

Why Due Dates Suck

Most of the time, due dates are artificially constructed. We decide that something needs to be done by a particular time so we assign it a due date. Or, someone asks us to do something and we want to get it to them in a timely fashion, so we give it a due date. This is how almost everyone in business works. I did it for years.

Due dates create late nights

Then I read some material by a man named Michael Linenberger that rung true to me and shifted my thinking.

Speaking of due dates, Linenberger says:

…if you set a date that’s fake you’ll know it’s fake and you’ll ignore it. In fact you may miss some important deadlines because you’ll get in the habit of ignoring all due dates you write down.

In other words, if you arbitrarily set a due date, there’s a good chance you’ll ignore it because you know the task isn’t due on that date. You know that there won’t be any issue if you get to the task later and so you ignore the due date.  You essentially tried to outsmart yourself and failed.

Keep this up long enough and you’ll begin ignoring all your due dates.

I’ve also discovered that artificial due dates can lead to unproductive guilt. Have you ever opened your task app to a sea of red indicating overdue tasks?

 

due dates cause overdue tasksGuilt and overwhelm can easily set in, but there is no reason to feel guilty if you made the correct decision to do something else with your time.

Beyond unnecessary guilt, the focus on due dates undervalues a core skill in the modern workplace; adaptability. Life and business are moving faster and faster. Everyone needs to be flexible. Life happens, things come up, and priorities need to shift. Surely, changes in priority should be communicated, but often arbitrary due dates make it harder to adjust to current reality.

Again, to quote Linenberger:

…when the [due] date arrives you’ll know—you’ll recall—that it’s arbitrary. And then you’ll likely skip it. That’s because in a busy work environment there is nearly always some other fire drill going on that requires more attention. Think about it. If you’ve got a client screaming for attention, and at that moment a task to clean your desk drawers pops up, which are you going to pay attention to?

Yes, due dates have their place; when an item is really due on a certain day. When everything hinges on you getting that thing done or when the fallout from re-prioritization isn’t worth it.  NOw, I know some of you will insist lying to themselves about due dates prevents procrastination. If you don’t have enough tasks to keep you engaged, that’s possible. But, for most of us, we have more on our plates than we could possibly finish which means realistic prioritization, not due dates, makes sure we doing the right things.

Of course, all this raises the question: if not due dates, then what?

The Beauty of Start Dates

Start dates are a much better alternative because they are focused on now and less on the future. They give you a sense of when you should begin a project without boxing you in.

calendar tasks with start dates instead of due dates

A start date provides more focus on what you should be doing now and peace of mind by allowing you to hide tasks until it’s time to begin thinking about them. Linenberger talks about start dates this way:

Essentially, what the future start date tells you is when you first want to see the tasks or when you first want to start thinking about doing the task. So, in essence, this is not a due date but rather it is a “DO” date. It’s the day you want to start thinking about doing the task. Tasks postponed to a future date like this I call Defer to Do tasks.

When I see a task appear on my list, I know that it’s time to begin planning, strategizing, and organizing for that task. It’s time to send out initial communications, take the first notes, and gather resources. This allows me to a huge jump on things in terms of productivity. Instead of hurriedly trying to complete a task before a due date, I’m way ahead of the game.

Writer Belle Cooper talks about the benefits of start dates in her life:

…since using start dates, I don’t see those due dates so often. Because I set my start dates far enough in advance to complete the work early, I’m procrastinating and bumping up against deadlines much less often. What a relief.

That’s the beauty of the start date. I’m bumping up against deadlines less frequently, which lowers the stress and unproductive guilt. I can focus on what matters now, and I can prioritize about what I should be giving my time to. I’m also slowly building my ability to forecast how long projects will take to complete instead of making up arbitrary dates. Finally, using start dates forces me to weigh the opportunity cost between starting one thing versus starting something else.

Apps That Work With Start Dates

If you plan out your tasks on paper or in a notebook, you can write in your start dates. But if, like many people, you use a task scheduling app, it’s not always as intuitive. Fortunately, there are several outstanding task apps that can handle start dates (or, at least something close).

Todoist's take on due dates

Those apps include:

On this list, Wunderlist and Todoist don’t exactly have a start date feature, but they do allow you to set reminders to begin a task. Todoist even has a Smart Scheduling feature that helps you schedule and reschedule tasks.  The best situation is when you can hide or filter out future start dates to focus on current priorities.  That’s what creates peace of mind.

Conclusion

None of us will be able to complete all the things we want to in life (unless we lower our desires considerably). This means that we must be able to both prioritize and be flexible when it comes to tasks. We must have the ability to adapt as life interrupts our well laid out plans. Most existing productivity systems seem to ignore this reality. The result is artificial due dates, unproductive guilt, and less well-being.

So go with start dates. You’ll get more done and feel better through the process.