Deadlines do not just increase productivity. Second-semester college seniors, for example, also face a deadline. They have limited time to enjoy the remaining days of college life. A study by the psychologist Jamie Kurtz looked at how seniors managed this deadline. She started the study six weeks from graduation. Six weeks is far enough away that the end of college may not yet have fully registered, yet it is short enough that it can be made to feel quite close. For half the students, Kurtz framed the deadline as imminent (only so many hours left) and for the others she framed it as far off (a portion of the year left). The change in perceived scarcity changed how students managed their time. When they felt they had little time left, they tried to get more out of every day. They spent more time engaging in activities, soaking in the last of their college years. They also reported being happier—presumably enjoying more of what the college had to offer.
This impact of time scarcity has been observed in many disparate fields. In large-scale marketing experiments, some customers are mailed a coupon with an expiration date, while others are mailed a similar coupon that does not expire. Despite being valid for a longer period of time, the coupons with no expiration date are less likely to be used. Without the scarcity of time, the coupon does not draw focus and may even be forgotten. In another domain, organizational researchers find that sales people work hardest in the last weeks (or days) of a sales cycle. In one study we ran, we found that data-entry workers worked harder as the payday got closer.
The British journalist Max Hastings, in his book on Churchill’s “Finest Years,” notes, “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” Everyone who has ever worked on a deadline may feel like an Englishman. Deadlines are effective precisely because they create scarcity and focus the mind. Whether it is the few minutes left in a meeting or a few weeks left in college, the deadline looms large. We put more time into the task. Distractions are less tempting. You do not linger at lunch when the chapter is due soon, you do not waste time on tangents when the meeting is about to end, and you focus on getting the most out of college just before graduating. When time is short, you get more out of it, be it work or pleasure. We call this the focus dividend—the positive outcome of scarcity capturing the mind.
We often associate scarcity with its most dire consequences—the poor mired in debt; the busy perpetually behind on their work. The focus dividend shows how scarcity also has its benefits. But the costs are not far behind. Our largest struggles with scarcity, it turns out, share roots with our greatest benefit: they too follow from scarcity capturing the mind.