Businessman holding up Stop Sign

The Hard Stop, Team Performance, and Personal Productivity

There’s a universal truth about human behavior that most leaders fail to fully utilize. And the truth is this: deadlines drive action.

To prove my point, I submit to you three widely divergent but incredibly revealing examples: the IRS, the airline industry, and my children growing up.

It’s unlikely that any of us living in the United States would willingly file our taxes unless the deadline of April 15th existed. That deadline motivates millions of people to take action and get their refund. Unless, of course, you owe money to the IRS and put off this painful process as long as you possibly can.

The airline industry uses the power of deadlines to motivate millions of travelers to act every hour of every day. There’s the deadline of a plane closing its doors and pulling away from the terminal. There’s the deadline of checking in one hour before a plane pulls away from the terminal. And there’s the deadline of arriving at the airport with enough time to get through security. Very few miss these deadlines.

Which brings me to my children.

When they were little, my children (much like your children), were supremely unmotivated to get household chores done. A simple job, like washing the dishes after dinner, would extend for hours, and, sometimes, even to the next day. This made for an unhappy wife and mother, and, by extension, an unhappy husband and father. So I bought a timer, set it for 15 minutes after dinner was finished, and rewarded the child who cleaned the dishes within that time.

Deadline, reward, done. Problem solved.

I do, however, use different words in referring to this principle at work than the word deadline. I prefer the words “hard stop” and use them in the following way: a hard stop at the end of the day, a hard stop at the end of the week, a hard stop at the end of the month, the quarter, and the year. Setting and rewarding the completion of hards stops has the ability to transform your team’s performance and boost your personal productivity.

Here’s how:

The Hard Stop and Team Performance

Have you noticed how much work people get done before going on vacation? The hard stop that precedes it drives this action. And, of course, the reward of going on vacation.

Have you noticed how much activity salespeople engage in before the end of the year? Again, it’s the hard stop of year-end that drives this action and the reward of commission.

These do not have to be rare or random occurrences, however. Wise leaders use the motivation of the hard stop with a reward to drive world class performance.

  • Wise sales managers conduct high energy cold calling blitzes to see how many appointments their team can set in day and reward them accordingly.
  • Wise project managers challenge their production team to see how much work they can get done in a week and wrap up the week with a party.
  • Wise CEO’s create quarterly goals for their company, tie those goals into a theme, and rally the entire organization around that theme, providing four finish lines a year to sprint to rather than just one.

One caution in using this approach, however. As I learned with my children, make sure the dishes are actually clean. That is, in setting a hard stop and rewarding activity around it, quality check that activity so it meets your standards of performance. A hard stop can have unintended consequences if you don’t.

The Hard Stop and Personal Productivity

The hard stop is a powerful tool for increasing personal productivity, but in a different way than with your team.

As I’m sure you’ve discovered, certain tasks in your day fill the time you give them. Answering email, for instance, can take ten minutes or hours. Business meetings can be wrapped up in 45 minutes, or go on and on and on.

By setting a handful of hard stop sessions of 15-30 minutes for processing email during the day—instead of constantly being interrupted by it—you force yourself to focus. As a result, email gets answered crisply, quickly, and professionally in fixed, concentrated times. This technique is called batching, and it’s the only way to keep email from running, and ruining, your life.

Your reward for doing this? Sanity.

Meetings work the same way, intensifying focus on the issues at hand with with clear start times and clear end times. More sanity.

The most powerful use of a hard stop in the realm of personal productivity, however, is having a hard stop at the end of your work day and a hard stop at the end of your work week.

Your things to do list, like email, will expand to the time you give it. You literally could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and still have more to do. The answer to this dilemma is giving yourself five focused, concentrated work days in which to do your job in one focused, concentrated work week, each with a hard stop at the end. After these hard stops, you do not do any more work that day or that week.

What you’ll find when you implement this discipline, as with email, is an intensified focus on your highest in priorities and, as a result, an output of high quality work (versus more mediocre work).

The simple fact of the matter is: all tasks are not created equal. Some, to be sure, are worthy of your time, others are not. Definitely not. But in the absence of a hard stop, you’re doing them anyway, like watching a bad TV show just because the TV is on. A hard stop at the end of the work day forces you to filter the important from the unimportant and invest your precious, limited time on your highest priorities. In other words, turn the TV off!

What’s Your Reward?

There’s a reward for this as well.

“Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the next level where it can begin to recharge for the day to follow,” advises Cal Newport in his brilliant book Deep Work.

“Put another way,” Cal continues, “trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings will reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.”

What goes for the work day also goes for the weekends. As with any strenuous endeavor, rest is as important as exertion in achieving peak performance. Take these times without fail. Not only will you get more done at work, you’ll also become a hero at home.

Here’s the Bottom Line

Deadlines drive action: from taxes, to airplanes, to dishes, to email, to sales. This is the human condition. Leverage this condition with yourself and others to get the most out of your team and the most out of your days.

Then revel in the reward of a thoroughly enjoyable life.

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