Article: Time's up! Should you really worry about deadlines?

Life @ Work

Time's up! Should you really worry about deadlines?

Deadline drama? Not so fast! Researchers uncover the truth behind the hype, showing that deadlines may not be as stressful as we thought.
Time's up! Should you really worry about deadlines?

Houston, we have a deadline!

But fear not. New research from the University of Houston, Texas A&M, and the Polytechnic of Milano has found that deadlines may not be as stressful as we once thought. In fact, researchers discovered that the high levels of stress experienced by knowledge workers, such as researchers, remain relatively constant whether they are working near a deadline or not.

Led by Ioannis Pavlidis, professor of computer science and director of the Affective and Data Computing Laboratory at UH, the first-of-its-kind study published in the Proceedings of the ACM Human Factors in Computing aimed to investigate the impact of deadlines on knowledge work.

READ MORE | Caught in the grind? The effect of heavy workloads

Ten researchers were monitored using miniature cameras placed at their university office to unobtrusively record their facial physiology, expressions, and movements during days with and without impending deadlines. The researchers' sympathetic activation, a physiological indicator of arousal and stress, was measured every second through quantification of their imaged perinasal perspiration levels.

Does stress increase stress levels?

Contrary to popular belief, the study found that deadlines did not significantly increase stress levels in researchers. "Research is tough every day," said Pavlidis. "Using a metaphor, if you are under heavy rain all the time, if one day the rain is a little heavier, it would not make much difference to you because you are already wet to the bone. This is what our models show with respect to the effect of deadlines on researchers."

Interestingly, the only factors found to exacerbate sympathetic activation were extensive smartphone use and prolific reading/writing, which are integral to research work and often unavoidable.

However, researchers appeared to instinctively auto-regulate their stress levels by adjusting the frequency of physical breaks.

On average, researchers took one physical break every two hours, but when sympathetic activation increased by 50%, the break frequency nearly doubled, revealing the limits of cognitive work under increasing stress.

READ MORE | How typing and clicking reveal employee stress levels

Challenging views about deadlines

Pavlidis believes that this naturalistic study challenges some prevailing views about deadlines and highlights the potential of affective computing in understanding human behaviours in various domains.

"With the recent advances in affective computing, I expect such naturalistic studies to proliferate across domains, challenging misconceptions we hold about a lot of things," added Pavlidis.

So, the next time you're facing a looming deadline, take heart in knowing that it may not be as stressful as you think. After all, as researchers have shown, knowledge work can be tough every day, rain or shine.

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