How To Manage Deadlines

Whether you like them or not, we are all faced with deadlines in our lives at some point.

Deadlines can seem like a negative thing and people often hate having them because the application of pressure can often make tasks not fun.

And that can be true – particularly when we’re set unrealistic deadlines, which can increase stress and pressure.

But deadlines can also create something called eustress, which is a positive type of stress that helps us to get our arses in gear.

However, leaving everything until the eleventh hour on a regular basis can be stressful and often results in sub-standard results. I’ve got no scientific proof of any of these claims but just talking from experience and if you’ve ever left anything until the last minute, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t disagree.

Why do deadlines matter?

Within a work environment, deadlines are required for businesses to stay productive and maintain momentum.

They also help to create clarity on expectations and accountability, which makes work much easier to manage. They help you focus on the key elements and organize your time.

Simply put, deadlines ensure things get done.

If tasks have no agreed endpoint then it is easy for them to get put off for more (and often, less) urgent matters.

When it comes to your own personal goals, remember that without a deadline, a goal is just a dream.

For example, compare someone who says, “I’m going to lose weight,” with someone who says, “I’m going to lose XX lbs by XX date.” Who do you think is more likely to succeed? Ask anyone who knows anything about goal setting and they’ll almost certainly bet on the latter.

Defining an outcome with a deadline seems to make success much more likely, provided action is then taken, of course.

Of course, simply having a deadline does not guarantee that a task or objective gets completed by that deadline. To succeed, action is required and there are also various potential barriers that can prevent this from happening.

So, with some of the most common barriers in mind, I’ve put together a dozen tips should help you overcome them in order to meet your deadlines both in work-related tasks and within the context of your own personal goals.

Finish Line
Be clear on the definition of “mission complete” / Image by pxfuel

1. Be clear on the definition of ‘completed’

You should be clear not only on the time and date of the deadline but also on what constitutes “finished”.

A common problem in today’s world of work is that it is not always clear when a task is finished. For example, if my task is to build a wall, completion of the wall and, therefore, the task is self-apparent, because they’ll be a wall where there wasn’t one before.

However, for many of the tasks carried out by ‘knowledge workers‘ these days, the definition of complete can be a grey area. Reports, recommendations, on-going consultation, etc, may not have such an obvious point of completion, so it is important that a consensus is agreed among all parties when projects and deadlines are being discussed.

2. Understand your motivations

Be clear on your goals. Know your ‘why’. If you are clear on exactly what you have to achieve within the given timeframe, everything is much simpler.

Yes, sometimes your motivation for completing a task or project might be as simple as receiving a paycheque or not getting fired. But that’s ok – it still helps!

Building bloicks
Break tasks down / Image by Pixabay

3. Break tasks down

Big projects can be intimidating.

But everything is made up of smaller parts, so breaking down your projects into individual tasks can not only make a project more manageable but will also help you to identify which tasks you should prioritize and which are the most time-consuming.

Having a better understanding of the components that make up your project will make it much easier to manage. Then, once you have prioritized the task, just focus on one at a time without thinking too much about the whole journey ahead.

Read: How To Break Down Projects Into Tasks

4. Prioritize your tasks

Having a To-Do list of tasks is Time Management 101. Read more here if this is this is the first time you’re hearing of this!

Before you do anything, it is crucial to get everything you need to do to complete the project out of your head and onto a To-Do list.

But perhaps more crucially, you need to then organize and prioritize those tasks.

This includes assessing the value of every task and identifying which parts can be cut in the event of time constraints. This is simply good planning.

A common mistake and one I’ve made myself before is to leave the more difficult and time-consuming parts of a project until the end, which ultimately leads to a mad sprint to the finish line and a whole load of stress that could have been avoided.

Read: How To Prioritize Your Tasks

Analyze and evaluate
Work out what is required in advance / Image by Mudassar Iqbal

5. Evaluate and analyze

Always evaluate and analyze exactly what is required in terms of time and resources to complete the project in front of you.

Firstly, estimate the time and effort required. This takes a lot of practice and experience and it is something many of us often get wrong, a situation dubbed the ‘planning fallacy’.

Negotiate early if it looks like the deadline being demanded is unreasonable. If you know you can’t meet it, don’t commit to it.

But, once you do commit to it, you should stick to it.

There will be times when you’re set very tight deadlines to finish a project. However, if you prioritize your tasks efficiently and attack the most important elements first, the lower-value and/or time-consuming tasks can often be delegated to others. But you need to understand exactly what the project entails from the start in order to make these decisions.

As the say in the British military, time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.

But a word of warning: don’t confuse planning with action. An easy trap to fall into is to spend too much time planning and not enough time doing. You have to find the right balance.

6. Plan backwards

Once you have estimated how long you think your project will take, you need to work out how much time you have available and can dedicate to it between now and the deadline. The easiest and most logical way to do this is to work backwards from the deadline date.

Once you have done this, it will be much easier to schedule time to work on the tasks required to complete your project. More on scheduling here and here.

7. Start early and make contingency plans

Consider this well-known ‘law’:

“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Murphy’s Law

This is not being pessimistic.

Anyone who has managed more than a couple of projects in their lifetime will have experienced this phenomenon. And even if things do go smoothly for you most of the time, it is always good to make allowances for eventualities if you have the luxury.

I like to set my own deadline at least 48 hours before the hard deadline and work backwards from there (see above). This provides a buffer in the event that progress is slowed due to unforeseen circumstances or barriers.

Another ‘law’ to consider is Parkinson’s Law, which states:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson’s Law

For more on Parkinson’s Law and what to do about it, read this post.

Most productive time of day
Find when you’re most productive / Image by Pixabay

8. Know your most productive times of day

We can’t be at our most productive all the time. In fact, studies show that our energy and focus levels vary throughout any given day, so if you can identify your most productive times, you can take advantage of that knowledge and schedule your important, high-value and deep work for these periods and allocate other times of day for those tasks that require less focus and brainpower.

Read: How To Find Your Most Productive Time Of Day

9. Remove/manage distractions

Distractions are a massive productivity killer and will waste precious time when you’re working to a deadline.

So, if you want to meet your deadlines, you need to take measures to reduce them.

The biggest culprits are usually email, your phone, the internet and other people. Removing these distractions will help you stay focused on the task.

I’ve written a few posts that cover strategies to help with distractions:

Does Inbox Zero Work?

How To Deal With Internet Distractions

Workplace Time-Wasters And How To Avoid Them

10. Confront procrastination

If you’re known to procrastinate, work on overcoming it.

Procrastinating on tasks is a sure way to miss a deadline, so you need to remove it from the equation. Check out some ideas on how to do this here.

Ask for help
Don’t be scared to ask for help / Image by Gerd Altmann

11. Ask for help

One of my biggest weaknesses is not asking for help when I have plenty of qualified people around me to call upon. If you need to employ the help of another person to help you meet a deadline, don’t be shy – ask!

12. Never move the deadline

Lastly, whatever you do, don’t get into the (bad) habit of moving deadlines, either at your own decision or through negotiation if someone else is making the decisions.

By all means, negotiate for more time at the beginning of the project if, after analyzing it, you feel more time is required to complete what is being asked of you, but once you have agreed on the deadline and the work is underway, you should always stick to it. Otherwise, you set a precedent and you’ll end up making this a habit.

Never move the deadline – just work harder to meet it!

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

If you can implement these dozen tips, you’ll stand a much better chance of meeting your deadlines.

An additional general tip is to maintain a positive mindset, which may seem a bit “airy-fairy” to some people, but it is important when you are trying to meet a deadline.

You need to believe that you can achieve the task within the timeframe you have. A negative attitude will not help matters, especially if time is short and you’re under pressure.

Also, remember to review your progress regularly, particularly when dealing with a large project that might span a long amount of time.

More reading

How To Achieve A Work-Life Balance

Time Management Tips From Successful People

How Time Management Can Reduce Stress

The Real Benefits Of Time Management

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[Featured image credit: Gerd Altmann]

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