A Cautionary Tale
Mencius (a Chinese philosopher) once told the following story:
Once there was a man from Song who, concerned that his seedlings weren’t growing, decided to pull them upward.
Worn out, he returned home and said to his family: “Today I’m exhausted — I’ve been helping the seedlings to grow!”
His son hurried out to have a look, and of course the seedlings had withered.
The Folly of Forced Deadlines
Inexperienced people often set deadlines they can never achieve. They say:
“I’m going to pack on 10kg of muscle this year.”
“I’m going to finish writing a novel in 3 months.”
“I’m going to make half a million dollars by December.”
Is it possible to accomplish all these things? Yes.
Are you likely to complete them, in good order and on schedule, if you’ve never done so before? No.
Because you can’t set reasonable deadlines until you’ve gained enough experience to know how long, under your own unique circumstances, you will take to achieve your goals.
Only experience can help you make the rational, realistic projections that translate into effective deadlines. Without experience, every deadline you set is just a random date plucked out of thin air because it sounds nice to you.
Unrealistic deadlines only result in imbalance, frustration, disappointment, procrastination, cutting corners, and unethical behaviour (in the case of Wells Fargo).
So don’t get unrealistic. Set your deadlines only when you know how long things will actually take.
Things Take as Long as They Take
Achieve a fruitful outcome… as an inevitable result, without force.
— Tao Te Ching, 30 (my translation).
Unrealistic deadlines only set you up for failure. Such forced deadlines will stress you out, lower the overall quality of your life, and do you more harm than good. They make you the farmer tugging on his shoots.
This does not work in the long term. Once all your processes are in place, things take as long as they take. Forcing things will only lead to trouble.
Choose deadlines instead that will set you up for inevitable success: that will allow you to grow with the flow while still remaining achievable.
Let’s call these growth deadlines.
The stiff and rigid are disciples of death; the soft and supple are disciples of life.
— Tao Te Ching, 76.
Four points about growth deadlines:
- They make you better than you were before
- They involve doing difficult things
- They are based on sound knowledge and experience
- They are flexible and resilient enough to withstand chaos
Let’s talk about each of these in turn.
1) Growth deadlines make you better than you were before.
That’s what “growth” means.
A growth deadline should result in you accomplishing something you haven’t accomplished before, or doing something faster or better than you used to before.
Deadlines exist to serve you. You do not exist to serve them. Get that correct and all else follows.
Stop wilting. Start growing.
2) Growth deadlines involve doing difficult things.
The work you do in pursuit of a growth deadline should be consistently difficult.
It should be work that stretches you and pushes you to your limits. That’s how you grow.
(That said, it shouldn’t be so hard that it breaks you. That would be counterproductive.)
More on this in an upcoming post.
3) Growth deadlines are based on sound knowledge and experience.
You can’t pluck your targets out of thin air.
Instead you should set growth deadlines only after you know how much time it will actually take you to complete a task.
This is what practice and training are for: to teach you how long it will take.
Practise. Practise. And practise some more. That’s how you get experience.
4) Growth deadlines are flexible and resilient enough to withstand chaos.
According to Murphy’s Law, whatever can go wrong will go wrong.
In my opinion that overstates the case somewhat. But life does often throw chaos our way: funerals, illnesses, flight delays, unexpected friends from out of town. Your deadlines must be therefore be hardy enough to withstand all of these.
So plan deliberately for things to take longer than you expect. You must leave yourself some room to manoeuvre.
Resilient deadlines need to have flexibility and adaptability built in. If your deadlines demand rigid adherence to a set daily schedule — even a schedule based on prior experience — chances are you will either fail or throw your life into disarray. These are not optimal outcomes.
Allow yourself more time than you think you will need, and be flexible about how you fulfil your goals. If you finish early you can always move your schedule up.
But I Don’t Have Any Experience!
Don’t have experience? Then start training. Practise. Measure your progress in time, commitment, and consistency. Hire a coach to give you feedback and to show you what to do next.
More to come. Stay tuned for Part 2…