Friday, May 16, 2014

Will I Get This Written Before the Deadline?

Does this happen to you: A word gets in your head and you say it over and over again until it sounds silly or like gibberish?

It happens to me sometimes. Not often but sometimes. The other day I was with some colleagues and the word “deadline” came up. As in, “our deadline forced us to make decisions on the project that we might not have otherwise.”

The word deadline began swirling around and twisting itself in my brain.

Deadline. Deadline, deadline, deadline, deadline.

I started pondering its true meaning. Deadline. Deadline. Deadline.


What a peculiar word, I thought, and where did it come from? We have deadlines all over the place now. Deadlines at work, deadlines at school. I have a deadline to get my rising 7th grader vaccinated so he can enter classes next fall. My wife and I have deadlines. This morning, for example, was the deadline to get the weekly trash and recycling to the curb. Or else!

My ever ebbing and flowing “to do” list has tasks waiting, anxiously, to be called up and assigned a deadline. Deadlines, I suppose, are important. If we didn’t have deadlines then stuff just wouldn’t get done.

I wondered who had deadlines in the past. Lots of things have happened in the past, so there must have been lots of deadlines. One of the more famous deadlines was John F Kennedy’s deadline that we would send a man to the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade. And we did. It was awesome. It was the 1960s.

I’m sure there are plenty of other noble, and less, deadlines through history. Maybe they were more like decrees or ultimatums, and the like, but many were probably deadlines. Like when Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. I'm sure Caesar Augustus wanted the census done by some deadline. But what about even earlier deadlines? Did Buddha have a deadline?

“I’ll sit right here under this tree for a period of time, not to exceed seven (7) years, to become enlightened.”

Or Pharoah? He had lots of slaves making lots of bricks for his pyramid. His deadline was a real deadline. He needed that pyramid done before he was dead. That was the line! (Aside: curious, Pharoah's deadline was to build a pyramid. A "lifeline," you might say, to the next world.)

Back to deadlines.

Deadline, deadline, deadline.

Dead Line.



I decided to look-up this strange word.

From the Wikipedia:

The term deadline originated from prison camps during war, and referred to a physical line or boundary. Guards would shoot any prisoner who crossed the deadline.

Well then.

You can read the rest yourself, if you want, but the short passage goes on to describe how the term was co-opted after the U.S. Civil War to describe the importance of a due date.

I suspect early humans didn’t worry too much about deadlines, particularly the self-imposed kind modern life requires. Sure there were things that had to happen when they needed too. Killing a buffalo before it goes away so I can eat seems important and timely. Or, moving the clan to the warmer cave before the first frost appears on the leaves needs to happen when it needs to. Maybe its just my own fantasy about “simpler times long ago” when the biggest worry, after killing a buffalo and not freezing to death in the winter, was communing with the spirit world each night.

I wonder what it would be like if we just got rid of deadlines and just let stuff get done when it does. Yes, some tasks require urgency.  Medical emergencies, for example, necessitates an emergency response. And other tasks to protect or preserve life, limb, and property require swift action.

But what would happen if Apple released its next iPhone in October instead of August? Maybe I’m being a Pollyanna, but somehow I think humanity would make it through that missed deadline. As a former software engineer and IT project manager, I now tell people that if they deliver something a little late, most people will eventually forget. But if you deliver shit on time, they’ll always remember. Mr. Obama, if you are reading this, please consider this for your next website launch.

Time is a funny thing. A seemingly infinite resource doled out by some unseen supplier in precise doses; all of us receiving exactly the same amount so long as we live. It’s predictable and unchangeable, so far as we know, yet we just can never seem to get enough. We are time addicts. Sad souls selling off our parents furniture hoping to score an extra hour or two from some shady timekeeper in a back alley on the bad side of town. I have a hunch if someone were to invent a machine that would give us an extra hour we’d only crave more. We’d melt down that extra hour into a liquid and shoot it straight into our veins.

Maybe rather than more time, what we need is to admit our addiction and turn in over to a higher power. Deadlines Anonymous. I see church basements across the land packed with skittish souls with overwhelming “to do” lists and endless deadlines. Or perhaps some methadone equivalent would help. Rather than church basements we’d spend time queued up at the county clinic waiting for some watered down substitute for time.

We wouldn’t get anything more done, but we would at least sleep better.

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