It it is January 14th, Dean’s Date. You are hunched over a 500-page anthology of Russian Literature, writing your final paper. The deadline is in 2 hours and 18 minutes and every second counts. You ask yourself, why?! Why did you leave these hunks of textual meat in the oven until the last possible second? Why do you always wait until the deadline?!
The answer is simple: deadlines motivate us. In the four months you were allotted to write this paper, your productive embers are the hottest only in the very last few hours—at that precious tipping point when your awareness of the dreaded deadline becomes less abstract, and more of a concrete countdown.
The word “deadline” itself is horrifically hyperbolic. Indeed, the origin of the term dates back to a horrifying time and place: Civil War prisons. During the war, prisoners were told to stay behind a boundary that they referred to as the “do-not-cross” line. Prison guards were told to shoot any prisoners who dared to cross this “dead line.” “Deadline” is now used to describe pretty much any instated due date—a line in time which, were we to cross it unprepared, would end in tragedy. And these lines have proved extremely useful. As Parkinson’s law states, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Without this line, your Russian Literature paper would probably still be in that oven, and the article you’re reading right now would be sitting forever in my hard drive. Embracing time limits allows for productivity.
While it is fun to revel in our own misery and stress, the collegiate perception of a “deadline” is far from deadly. However, the artificial sense urgency it generates is certainly a universal sensation. The experience that you have in the last hours of Dean’s Date is demonstrative of grander “deadline” which humanity faces—a deadline that is more directly reminiscent of the morbid etymological basis of the deadline—death!
If observance of deadlines drives motivation, then to what extent should we be aware of our mortality? Frederik Colting, a 37-year-old Swedish man and former gravedigger, often asked himself this question. Colting claimed that if he was more explicitly aware of mortality, then he would value life more. He recently invented a product which allows for people to embrace this dogma to its extreme—the Tikker wristwatch. The Tikker displays a countdown to an algorithmically derived estimate of your death day. In other words, the same blinking dot matrix display which you use to avoid being late for class can also tell you the exact (i.e. estimated) hours, minutes, and even seconds that you have until you die. The watch has not yet been released to the public, but will be available this April.
Colting calls his invention the “happiness watch.” He sees the watch as a statement that the priority of life is living. This suggests that the feeling life “ticking away” inspires people to seize every passing second. According to Colting, were we to treat each moment in life with the same value and excitement as we do those precious hours before Dean’s Date, we would forget our grudges and seize the day. To some people, this dogma proved to be true. One study demonstrated that this direct awareness of mortality made individuals more likely to donate their blood, suggesting that awareness of the dead line can lead to generosity and kindness.
However, this wristwatch is a double-edged sword, as it can also incite panic. Time, the most fundamental metric of life itself, is the most valuable resource we have. In the efforts to extend this “time” we use medicine, supplements, anti-oxidants, and anti-aging cosmetics. Much of human thought is dedicated to either extending or rationalizing the ultimate deadline. The Tikker’s countdown mechanism emphasizes that time is a limited resource. So while limited resources can lead us to attach high value to things (as Colting seems to claim), it also provokes a sense of scarcity and threat. In threatening environments, human nature incites in us the need to protect the “in-group” and villainize the “out-group.” In fact, psychological studies have found this very pattern: the longer that individuals wore the Tikker, the more xenophobic they became.
Mortality gives us purpose. But in our day-to-day life, what role does awareness of mortality play in our decision making? Will suppressing our awareness of the deadline (procrastinating, so to speak) only make it worse when we are actually approaching the end? If we embrace the inevitability of death now, perhaps we can evade the imminent “mid-life crisis” phase (and thus save a few bucks on the over-compensatory-sports-car and therapy). With Tikker watches on the market in April, the choice is yours. Versed as we are in the effectiveness of impending deadlines, is it unwise to apply this logic to our approach to life in general? Do you want a countdown?