Scrolling through email after email from colleges I’ve never heard of, I landed on one from Pomona College with the subject line: “Who Put the Dead in Deadlines?”
As part of every college’s unending quest to be cool and fun and relatable to teenagers, Pomona opened the body of their email with a joke: “Did you ever wonder how the word ‘dead’ ended up in the word ‘deadline’? As if the pressure of completing your college applications isn’t bad enough already, you have to be reminded of death every time you look at that looming date.”
Good one, Pomona.
In the rest of the email, with more fun jokes peppered in, they proceeded to give a little etymology lesson about the word—a bit like this column, except very brief and underscored with the threat of rejection.
So according to Pomona’s admissions office, the word was first used to describe a Civil War prison camp in Georgia. In the prison camp, there was a “dead-line,” a sometimes real, sometimes imaginary line beyond which any prisoner venturing to go would be shot dead.
“College application deadlines,” the email concludes, “aren’t looking so bad now, are they?”
This is a fair point; real guns aren’t usually involved in the college process. Deadlines, in fact, might even be a good thing. They force you, be it under pain of death or pain of a bad grade, to keep on task.
For the Hermiones of the world, this is a moot point. You can pat yourself on the back, dot your i’s and cross your t’s on an assignment due a week from next Friday, fold up this newspaper, and retire to bed promptly at 8:00 p.m.; this column probably isn’t for you.
But for other, “deadline-driven” people, the constant fear of repercussions is just the kick in the pants needed to complete anything. If you have a paper that is due in a week, it’s safe to say you won’t start writing it until six days from now. And although we’ve technically had since August to write our college applications, inevitably, some of us still didn’t hit send until January 1 at 11:59 p.m.
By now you may be thinking, “Wait a second— he’s not making some profound point; this is just a thinly veiled defense of procrastination.” But procrastination is the logical consequence of hard deadlines. If the only incentives to complete something by a certain date are the negative consequences incurred by failure to finish said assignment, then of course you would wait until the last possible second to do it. Procrastination, thus, is born of necessity; if there were no deadlines for the things we must do, then there would be no need to procrastinate.
Generally, deadlines work because negative reinforcement effects better results than positive reinforcement. Imagine if instead of the prisoners being shot for crossing the dead-line, they were given cookies for staying within it—without a doubt, far more prisoners would have escaped. The same principle also applies to more mundane tasks; without deadlines, there is a miniscule likelihood that I would ever get anything done.
Take this column, for example. Every issue, I am notified well in advance, given a very reasonable deadline, and sent reminders by my editor that my deadline is fast approaching, or, eventually, has already past, despite the long-established timeframe and barrage of increasingly passive-aggressive emails. The problem here lies not with me—I am, of course, exceedingly diligent—but rather with the fact that there is no motivation for me to meet that deadline. There is no prison guard with his eye on the word count prodding me with the barrel of his gun, nor is there a stern teacher brandishing her red pen. Thus, suffice it to say, that you are reading this at all is a miracle unto itself.
Hard deadlines are what separate concrete and abstract goals. I can write my English essay or my college applications in a way that I can’t just “learn a new language” or “exercise more.” This is the same reason I, for the most part, read the books assigned to me in English class but have not touched the one sitting on my nightstand for weeks. The difference is that I will consistently tell myself that I’m just far too busy to read Infinite Jest, but the book for English—Hamlet, or something equally cumbersome—is the busywork I’m burdened with doing.
So be grateful for all the deadlines we get because eventually, we’ll have to be setting our own goals. And hopefully, we’ll meet them anyway.