Deadlines are powerful forces in our work, signalling what’s most important, forcing focus and driving tasks to completion. That’s why projects that don’t have a deadline can languish on your to-do list for weeks, months or even years.
Sometimes this happens because a project is ambiguous, boring or messy. You naturally deprioritise it whenever possible, because working on it feels uncomfortable.
But other times you don’t mean to avoid the project. You just never get to it, because items with clear deadlines feel more pressing.
You probably don’t get a lot of external flak for delays on non-deadline tasks, but internally it can feel frustrating when projects sit untouched.
With important but not urgent items, there’s the anxiety that at any moment someone might ask you about their status and you will have nothing to show.
So, how do you motivate yourself when you want or need to get something done, but you don’t have a deadline?
As a time management coach, I’ve found that three simple strategies can help you finally move forward.
1. Make a deadline
If a project doesn’t have a deadline, there’s no reason you can’t make one up yourself. For example, you might decide that you want something done by a certain date, you could choose to spend a certain amount of time on a project each week or you could make a goal to take one step each day towards completion.
Write down your commitments, ideally marking them in your calendar. If you know that during busy times you’ll just put off non-deadline tasks, look for a lighter time in your schedule and then really commit.
By defining exactly when you want to get a project or parts of it done, you help yourself understand where it falls in the order of priorities. Plus, you make working on the task feel more urgent.
As you think about how you want to schedule the project, keep in mind how many tasks you need to complete that don’t have a stipulated end date.
If you have a number of items with no deadline, you’ll increase your odds of making progress if you pick just one to work on each month. You’re more likely to finish a project if you focus on only one over the next 30 days, rather than juggling a few non-urgent tasks all at once.
2. Enlist positive peer pressure
Sometimes the only way to move forward on deadline-free activities is to enlist support. When you tell someone your timeframe for completing work and regularly send them updates, you have a greater incentive to make progress.
Some people like to tell their goals to one person such as a team member, boss, friend or coach and then report back to that individual.
Others may decide to do a more public declaration. Consider telling a few people or posting on social media that you will do a certain activity by a specific time.
This strategy can work if you have people in your network who will remember and follow up with you.
Alternatively, you can collaborate with someone on your project. For example, you might set up a time for you and a colleague to work together on it or you may simply sit in the same room as someone who is working on a separate task.
This strategy works best if you let them know what you intend to do during that period and then report back at the end of the session.
The communication and proximity hold you accountable because your colleague knows what you should be doing at that moment.
Also, it creates a mini working environment, so you don’t feel like everyone else is out enjoying themselves while you are stuck working.
Choose the approach that’s most motivating and comfortable for you. All of these options create accountability, so even if there isn’t a real deadline, there’s a sense that you’re letting someone down or not sticking to your word if you don’t follow through.
3. Incentivise yourself
The last way to spark action is to create compelling incentives for yourself. There are a few ways you can do this. Try to give yourself a reward for the work you do. For instance, once you spend an hour on the project, you can go to lunch.
The rewards don’t have to be big or lavish. They just have to be things you want to do.
If rewards aren’t a powerful enough incentive, try penalties instead. For example, if you don’t spend an hour on your side hustle, you can’t watch your favourite TV show or, if you don’t complete the training module you bought, you can’t listen to any podcasts.
The idea is to tie the penalty to something you enjoy doing regularly, so you won’t ignore a task that you’re not inclined to invest time in.
Finally, you can try to make a reward part of the process of getting work done. For instance, you could let yourself go to a coffee shop or a park if you complete a task while you’re there.
When you do this, you’re combining a pleasurable experience with the need to focus on a project that you might otherwise not work on.
Motivating yourself to do non-deadline tasks is a challenge, but it is not insurmountable. Try these strategies to make more progress today.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.