Study: 60% of work done in final 15% of time

‘Well, can’t you just send me what you’ve done so far?’

These are the words any procrastinating project worker dreads. Parkinson’s law that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’ is familiar, but it doesn’t mean that work is always evenly distributed through that time. Another phenomenon is ‘student syndrome’, whereby work isn’t started until the last possible moment before a deadline.

So how heavily is work weighted towards the end of a project? One researcher investigated by looking at a particularly project-based company, Global Lingo in London. Global Lingo provides transcription and translation services to a variety of leading corporate clients, and was chosen because of the way its work is structured.

Realistic times lines ensure quality

The timeframe for transcription and translation projects generally ranges from a few hours to a week, with the largest projects subject to deadlines of no more than a month. Although the work is frequently highly technical and demands a great deal of skill, the time taken to complete it is fairly standardised; in an hour one person can transcribe about 15 minutes of audio, while a professional translator will get through about 2,500 words a day.

As it’s also hard to cut corners (transcribing or translating poorly takes just as long, whereas in a more ‘creative’ project aspects can be done sloppily to save time), the time taken to complete work on a project can be taken as a constant. In this way, it is possible to analyse when in a project’s total time span the work is undertaken.

Global Lingo was also chosen because of the profile of its employees: transcribers tend to be younger, recent graduates, whereas translators are older, usually having left a professional career to become a full-time translator. This balanced the study to control for what might be termed generational tendencies.

So taking into account all these factors, the headline result was that 60% of work is undertaken in the final 15% of the time available for the project. Jon, a 26-year-old Cambridge English graduate, was a perfect example. During the study, he took on two transcription projects for Global Lingo.

The first was of a 50-minute audio file, and was assigned to Jon at 3pm to be returned by 11am the following day. He transcribed the first 20 minutes immediately to get a sense of its complexity before finishing for the day at 5pm, starting again at 8am the next morning and working straight through until 11am.

This fitted conveniently into a normal working schedule, but the pattern was identical for longer projects too. At 9am on a Tuesday, Jon was assigned 3 hours and 20 minutes of audio from a conference to transcribe by 5pm on the Friday. Working on and off, he got through 80 minutes of the audio by Thursday. He then decided to start work early on Friday, working from 5am up until the deadline with only short breaks.

There are obvious disadvantages to such practice, not least the potential earnings foregone by not completing the project quickly and starting on a new one. So why do people put work off until the last possible moment? For many, money is obviously a less important consideration than enjoying a flexible schedule. Others, like Jon, can only motivate themselves to work when a deadline is pressing.

Setting accurate deadlines

Can anything be done about this? One common mitigation, as a production manager at Global Lingo points out, is using earlier ‘false’ deadlines. ‘We actually have all our translations and transcripts proofread by a second person anyway, so everything is always due to us long before it is due to the client.’ The downside, though, is that people come to expect a safety margin has been built into deadlines and so feel comfortable delivering late.

Financial inducements such as bonuses for early completion or incremental bonuses for taking on higher volumes of work will act as the catalyst needed for some, although of course they raise costs. Conversely, penalties for late submission can focus minds but can also lead people to rush and sacrifice quality to meet deadlines.

In the end, the best solution will be governed by personal relationships. Good managers will know how their employees prefer to structure their work and will hedge against any unknowns. It may lack the rigour of a six-sigma methodology, but so do most people.

How to meet deadlines every time:

  • Don’t delay assessment. The most important thing is to assess the project as early as possible. Go through everything and identify any time traps.
  • Be honest. Don’t kid yourself or your manager. There can be an inclination to hope for the best on both parties’ side, but you need to be realistic.
  • And communicate. If you wait until the deadline to say you’ll be late, it’s already too late. As soon as you suspect you’re falling behind, communicate. The chances are that some extra resources will be available to help you.