Deadlines: Deathlines or Lifelines?

Some people think deadlines are positive and others think deadlines are negative.  Deadlines definitely have their pros and cons, and it seems there is a time and a season for when to have deadlines and when not to have deadlines.  But how can you recognize the difference?  How can you know whether it would be beneficial or counterproductive to put a deadline on any given task or goal?  As I studied the matter, I was surprised by what I realized.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to convince a friend to use deadlines to achieve personal goals.  My friend pointed out that deadlines don’t work for those types of goals because if you don’t reach your goal by the deadline, then you may feel discouraged and want to give up.  Besides, personal growth takes time, and putting a limit on it might hurt it more than help it.  Forcing a deadline on a personal goal would be like trying to have a baby in eight months instead of nine; you could do it, but you would deny your creation the chance to fully develop and be healthy.  These reasons gave me a lot to think about because I could see my friend’s point of view, but I didn’t immediately know how to harmonize it with my own view.  I needed time to analyze this subject . . . but not too much time, or else I would either forget about it or overthink it.  So I set a deadline for when I would make a post about it!

For me and for a lot of other people I know, if it weren’t for deadlines, we would never get anything done.  By our nature, we are always trying to “put out the biggest fire first,” and often the only way to decide which fire is biggest is by assessing which deadline is nearest.  In recent years, I’ve learned that deadlines for personal goals are extremely important because otherwise we can’t see how big that particular fire is getting.  Why can’t we see it?  Because, ironically, all the less-important things tend to already have deadlines, so they demand our attention first and crowd out everything else.

For example, you automatically have deadlines for homework assignments or work projects, but you don’t have a deadline for building your relationship with your mom.  Your mom is infinitely more important than homework, but without deadlines, she just can’t compete.  Our brains don’t register any urgency.  The fire is definitely there—your relationship is getting worse and worse from the neglect—but without deadlines it’s like our mental smoke detectors aren’t working.  So if you’re ever going to keep that fire under control, then you need to decide on deadlines for how often to call your mom or spend quality time with her.

So what do you think?  Are deadlines good, evil, or somewhere in between?  Does their effectiveness all depend on the situation, or does it all depend on the personality of the individual?

I determined that there are two main types of deadlines.  I’ve nicknamed the first type “Deathlines” and the second type “Lifelines.”  Now let’s take a close look at each of these so you can see where your own deadlines fit in and why.


What makes a deadline a “Deathline?”

A Deathline is a deadline where a part of you “dies” after reaching the deadline.  This can happen when (as my friend pointed out) you don’t achieve the goal in time, and so you become discouraged and depressed.  Your hope for reaching your goal “dies,” your motivation “dies,” and a part of your self-esteem and self-respect “dies” as well.

However, a part of you can “die” upon reaching the deadline regardless of whether you have achieved the desired goal or not!  For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met every single deadline for a class, turned everything in on time, and studied all the materials in time for tests, but then once the class was over, I mentally deleted all the information and never had a desire to learn more about that topic again.  My motivation “died,” my teachability “died,” and the knowledge I had gained “died.”

If you look up the word deadline in the dictionary, the historical definition is “a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot” (Oxford Dictionary).

Doesn’t that definition describe the way we often feel about deadlines?  Like impending doom is looming over us?  Aren’t we motivated to meet deadlines because we feel that if we don’t then some sort of disaster will happen—like ruining our GPA, putting our job in jeopardy, or losing our house?  Aren’t we motivated to work harder and faster because the deadline is like a monster that is chasing us and about to catch up to us?  Deathlines are deadlines fueled by fear.  They have their purpose, but there is a better way.


A Lifeline is a deadline where you have more “life” in you after reaching the deadline.  Once again, this can happen whether you achieve the goal completely or not.

A story by Dieter F. Uchtdorf helps illustrate the unique power of Lifelines:

Not long ago I was skiing with my 12-year-old grandson. We were enjoying our time together when I hit an icy spot and ended up making a glorious crash landing on a steep slope.  I tried every trick to stand up, but I couldn’t—I had fallen, and I couldn’t get up.

I felt fine physically, but my ego was a bit bruised. So I made sure that my helmet and goggles were in place, since I much preferred that other skiers not recognize me. I could imagine myself sitting there helplessly as they skied by elegantly, shouting a cheery, “Hello, Brother Uchtdorf!”

I began to wonder what it would take to rescue me. That was when my grandson came to my side. I told him what had happened, but he didn’t seem very interested in my explanations of why I couldn’t get up. He looked me in the eyes, reached out, took my hand, and in a firm tone said, “Opa, you can do it now!”

 Instantly, I stood.

I am still shaking my head over this. What had seemed impossible only a moment before immediately became a reality because a 12-year-old boy reached out to me and said, “You can do it now!” To me, it was an infusion of confidence, enthusiasm, and strength.

Brethren, there may be times in our lives when rising up and continuing on may seem beyond our own ability. That day on a snow-covered slope, I learned something. Even when we think we cannot rise up, there is still hope. And sometimes we just need someone to look us in the eyes, take our hand, and say, “You can do it now!” ( Ensign, November 2013, p. 55)

In this story, the bold insistence of President Uchtdorf’s grandson was a Lifeline.  A Lifeline is a deadline that sends a positive signal to our subconscious and says, “You can do it now!”

“Lifeline” is already an actual word.  A figurative lifeline is “a thing on which someone or something depends or which provides a means of escape from a difficult situation.”  Also, the literal definition of a lifeline is “a rope or line used for life-saving, typically one thrown to rescue someone in difficulties in water or one used by sailors to secure themselves to a boat” (Oxford Dictionary).

Think of the literal definition for a minute.  If you’re someone who is in the habit of setting and keeping your own deadlines, it’s like you’ve tied a rope to yourself so you can pull yourself back to the ship if you get distracted and fall.  Or, if you haven’t set a deadline yet, imagine yourself swimming desperately in cold, turbid water, struggling to stay afloat. You feel powerless.  Then suddenly someone throws a rope and you grab onto it, and it pulls you to the boat.  That’s the same effect that a positive deadline can have on you, especially with personal goals, both big and small; they pull and lift you up to something higher.

Say you have a messy room.  You feel like you’re “drowning” in stuff, and you hate it, but you can’t seem to get the motivation to clean it.  You could let this go on forever.  But instead, you give yourself a Lifeline.  You decide, “I can do it NOW!”  Then you set a deadline to have it cleaned up by 3:00.  Maybe you even call a trusted friend and tell them your plan and ask them to hold you to it.  Maybe you set a deadline for when they will follow up with you.

As 3:00 approaches, you’re filled with adrenaline, and you make quicker and more effective decisions about what to keep and what to throw away.  You let go of things that might otherwise have weighed you down if you had held onto them.  When 3:00 hits, you look around at your clean room, and you feel brighter and happier and in control.  You’ve wanted a clean room for a long time, and now that it’s here, you love it and enjoy it.

But suppose 3:00 comes and you’re not done yet?  Well, the thrill of seeing how much progress you’ve made so far could be all the motivation you need to press forward, now that you have momentum.  And if you have to stop because you have to leave for a meeting at 3:00, you still have the satisfaction of knowing you did your best, and it will be easier to finish when you come back to it again.  You know you’re a better person now.  You have more life in you, and you cannot become discouraged.

Lifelines are seen as a means to an end, not the end itself.  Lifelines are not fueled by fear.  Instead, they are fueled by love.

Cleaning a room is a simple example, but you can also use deadlines for things like losing weight, overcoming a bad habit, checking something off your bucket-list, coming back to church, learning a new skill, or getting married.  Sometimes you can’t force a deadline simply because other people have to be on board, and they’re not there yet.  But at least you can make sure that you’re not the limiting reactant.

On the flip side, there may be times when everyone else is already on board and you’re the one still in the water.  This is why I highly recommend sharing goals and deadlines with others, especially those whom you love or who love you, and especially with those who have already achieved the goal that you yourself are trying to reach.  You need watchful and experienced sailors.  After all, you can’t always create a Lifeline to the ship by yourself.  Why?  Because the longer you sit floating in that cold water, the  more numb you become and the more incapable of movement.

In a BYU speech entitled “Healing = Courage + Action + Grace”, Jonathan G. Sandberg said “Remember, the longer we remain in an inactive state, the farther we drift from the Lord and His Spirit. As C. S. Lewis astutely described, ‘The more often [a person] feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.’” (Jonathan G. Sandberg, BYU Magazine, Summer 2014; C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. 61.)

So if you’ve been swimming in bad habits for a while, you’ll need the light and energy of other people to get you to the point where you can set your sights on a Lifeline.  You may even need someone to swim out and tie the rope around you by setting the deadline for you.  But you have to invite them to do it, and you have to believe in it and be excited about it, or else the deadline’s rope feels like a hangman’s noose and becomes a Deathline instead of a Lifeline.  Choice, intention, and desire are the keys.

Also, those who are best at setting deadlines are those who embrace honesty and a complete acceptance of truth.  They make a choice to stop pretending that their life is fine as it is.  After all, no one is going to throw you a Lifeline if you look like you’re going on a pleasure swim instead of drowning.  So don’t hide.  Remember how President Uchtdorf tried to hide behind those goggles!  He hid until finally someone like his grandson came along who knew him well enough to see through the disguise and loved him enough to not accept his excuses.

Now that you know the difference between a Deathline and a Lifeline, you can probably think of all the deadlines in your life and discern how some of them are Deathlines by nature and some are Lifelines by nature.  But there are a lot of deadlines in the middle where their identity depends entirely on you.  The same deadline can be a Deathline to one person and a Lifeline to another.

Take homework for example.  A teacher is like a captain standing on the ship.  The teacher looks down in the water and sees that the students are currently drowning in ignorance.  So the teach throws them Lifelines.  The teacher knows that without deadlines, there is no way that the students can learn all that they need to learn before the end of school.  To the students, however, they more often see those deadlines as Deathlines because their hearts are on other things, or they live in fear of disappointing their parents or not being able to graduate.

(Are you still with me?  This has been a longer post than usual, so thanks for making it this far.  You’re okay to stop reading right here.  The bonus point which I’m about to make might be trying to go a little too deep.)

If you’re still not motivated to set personal deadlines, keep in mind that EVERYTHING already has a deadline whether you can see it or not. Our task is to use our agency to choose our own deadline to come at some point before the actual deadline.  Otherwise, we become a slave to the default deadline.

Like in the example with your mom, you may think there’s no deadline for connecting with you mom, and then one day you realize you forgot her birthday and that you’ve hurt her feelings forever.  Or, inevitably, she’ll one day be on her deathbed and suddenly you’ll find the “final deadline” staring you in the face.  The reason we need to set our own deadlines with our personal goals is so we never have to live in fear of the actual deadlines.  In this way, deadlines increase our freedom rather than limiting it.

Probably the number one reason we’re motivated to do anything in life is because of our awareness of the final deadline: our own deaths.  But can you imagine how much time we would waste if it weren’t for this deadline and if we could life forever?  I mean, why would we be motivated to go to college or get married or do any of the things that bring true happiness if we just keep thinking to ourselves, “Oh, I can just do that 10,000 years from now. . . .”

Thus, ironically, having a DEADline allows us to truly LIVE.

So now my question is this: if there is an afterlife where we do live forever . . . how do we stay productive and full of life without a final deadline?

I think the answer to that dilemma depends on whether you’ve learned to live by Deathlines or Lifelines.  In other words, living by love and not by fear.  Without learning to set your own deadlines and learning to love those deadlines, then living forever would become true death.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Quillen Inkwell says:

    I LOVED this post! I truly enjoyed thinking about the difference between Lifelines and Deathlines, and as I pondered the application in my own life, I began to see how I can make certain deadlines in my life be fountains of joy and not despair.

    Truly a masterpiece of analysis. I’m glad you have analysis paralysis if these posts are the result 🙂

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