On Monday morning, he said, “I’ll finish this by today evening.”
In the evening, he said, “I didn’t find time. You’ll get it by tomorrow morning for sure.”
The next day, he was unreachable till late afternoon. “I’m really sorry. I’ve been busy. I guarantee I’ll complete this by tomorrow morning”, he said when we finally spoke.
This went on like Groundhog Day for a week. Finally, he turned in a semi-finished project and said, “I’ve done what I can. Have a look and let me know what you think. I’ll make the changes you want.”
In the end, what was promised in less than twenty four hours took two weeks to be completed.
Have you experienced this? I have. In fact, I’ve been on both sides of the table. I’ve had trouble setting deadlines and achieving them. I’ve also seen deadlines matter less to people than landline phones.
“The number one rule of business is reliability, and yet, deadlines seem to come and go with great ease”, says bestselling author Kevin Daum.
Why are deadlines difficult to meet, especially in the workplace?
Research shows that tight deadlines increase people’s urgency and stress levels. The more stressful a deadline, the less open people are to other ways of approaching the problem. Dr. Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, writes, “The very moments when we want people to think outside the box, they can’t even see the box.”
Deadlines make us feel anxious and edgy. Tempers run short and stress increases. Emotions dominate where calmness and balance are essential.
Benefits of Deadlines
Are deadlines important, in the workplace and elsewhere? Do their pros outweigh the cons? Should we get rid of them?
No. Deadlines benefit you in many ways. Some of them are:
- You reduce procrastination and become productive
- You sharpen focus and set priorities
- It’s easier to assess your workload and say “no” to unwelcome requests.
- You step outside your comfort zone and overcome fears
- You ‘ship’ ideas instead of polishing them forever and burying them.
Deadlines can create eustress – a positive reaction to stress that generates the desire to overcome challenges. Yes, stress can create positive outcomes too.
Deadlines in the workplace are not responsible for negative repercussions on people. Unrealistic deadlines are. We often set deadlines we cannot meet because we:
- want to please people
- overestimate our ability to deliver
- are unable to manage time effectively.
Extreme time pressures make us delusional. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard University, says, “while our participants were giving evidence of less creative thinking on time-pressured days, they reported feeling more creative on those days.” (source)
We think we work better under extreme pressure while, in fact, we regress.
7 Tips to Meet Deadlines
Setting deadlines are not as important as setting realistic ones and adhering to them.
Missing deadlines can cost you career advancement, clients and revenue. Adhering to deadlines increases others’ respect for you. Missing deadlines makes you appear unprofessional. Meeting deadlines assures you a gratifying professional and personal life.
Here are seven ways to set realistic deadlines and meet them.
Sleeping will not help you achieve deadlines. But it will help you think better.
Research shows that a nap positively affects willpower and gives the mind clarity. Negotiations expert Carl Icahn uses an interesting technique. He schedules negotiations late in the day, and then sleeps all day. You can apply the same concept to setting deadlines.
Before you propose a deadline for important projects in the workplace, tell the recipient, “Let me get back to you tomorrow.” Then sleep over it. After a nap or a night’s sleep, your mind will be clearer. As a result, you will set a realistic deadline.
2. Start Now
Not tomorrow. Not next week. Get a start now.
You don’t have to complete the task immediately. But start. It will help you build momentum and get over stress. It also will let you identify what you are missing. Jeff Haden believes nothing is worse than calling the recipient a day before the project is due and saying, “I think some stuff is missing.” It’s shows you put off their task till the last minute.
Prototyping is an effective way to start your task. Complete a portion of the work – an outline for the document, a rough design for the presentation – and share it with the recipient. This technique, originated by Scot Herrick, lets you get valuable feedback in the early stages of your project. It also helps you figure out what’s amiss and request for the information accordingly.
3. Work Backwards
Setting a deadline without logical thinking is a surefire way to fail.
When you set a deadline for a project, break it down into smaller tasks using the S.M.A.R.T. technique.
Ask yourself, “what will one step before the final outcome look like?” Keep going backwards until you reach the starting point. This will help you create a list of subtasks required to complete the project.
Then conduct research about how long each subtask should take. Find people who have finished similar tasks and ask them how long it took.
Working backwards lays a concrete path for you to complete a project well. It also helps you set a practical deadline. This is an effective way to work smart instead of working hard.
4. Add a Buffer
We set tight deadlines because we want to please people, and because we overestimate ours (and our colleagues’) abilities.
But contingency planning is important, because of a certain something called life. It rarely goes according to plan.
To avoid feeling stressed, Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggests setting a deadline a day or two before the actual deadline. That way, if anything takes longer than expected, you can still turn your work in on time without feeling stressed.
Adding a buffer is also useful because it helps to assume others will be late, Saunders explains. When possible, ask for items up to 48 hours in advance. This provides a buffer time for lateness. Add even more time to account for potential follow-up and delayed approvals if you coordinate with groups of four or more people.
5. Don’t Add Work
Once you add a buffer, the mind subconsciously eases down. If you feel the deadline is farther than it is, you feel tempted to slip in unnecessary tasks. Research shows how extreme deadlines distort our sense of time. They make us feel the end is farther than it actually is. This spells trouble.
When I’ve tried to slip in a task or two before leaving for a meeting, I’ve ended up late. Ditto with deadlines.
Instead of adding tasks, remove them. Leave fifteen minutes before schedule for the meeting. And stop working about thirty minutes before you leave.
The same applies to deadlines at work. Don’t overestimate your abilities. The human mind is not designed to juggle multiple tasks. Say “no” to noncore tasks. Yes, you will feel less productive, but you improve the chances of meeting your deadline.
6. Prioritize Work to be Assigned
A client of mine didn’t like providing information on time. I pestered him for weeks to share information I needed, but he kept saying he was busy. After three weeks, he gave me something scrappy. Then he demanded I finish the project in two days because he was in a hurry. You don’t want to know how things turned out.
If a team member is waiting for you to complete a task and hand it over, prioritize it. If they need information to begin work, share it with them before you start your task. That way, everyone optimizes their time. Like the Critical Path Method, all activities get completed within the deadline. Less time is also wasted.
7. Do Whatever It Takes
If it is a race against time, do whatever it takes.
“As a professional writer, my life is ruled to great degree by deadlines,” says Peter Economy, author of The Leadership Guy. “Sometimes, despite working hard to meet a deadline, I’m not quite there when there is just a day or two to go. In those cases, I get my coffee machine fired up and burn the midnight oil—working through the night and focusing on my task. I invariably meet the deadline (and then take a LONG nap afterwards).”
If You Will Miss a Deadline
Deadlines are not carved in stone. You will not meet them always. But informing the recipient about it in the dying moments is unprofessional.
If you will miss a deadline, give plenty of advance notice, writes Adrian Granzella Larssen. Back it up with a valid reason and explain how much more time you need. People are okay extending a deadline as long as they are given a good reason in advance.
Another effective way, Granzella Larssen suggests, is the option or bonus method. Here’s an example.
When her favorite writer is about to miss a deadline, she gives Granzella Larssen two options. She can bust her butt to turn it in on time, or Granzella Larssen can give her an extension. For instance, the writer says, “I’m in the middle of a project that’s taking longer than expected. Will it screw up your timing if I deliver the draft tomorrow? If so, I’ll crank it out tonight. If not, I’d so appreciate an extension and will send it to you tomorrow!” Most time, Granzella Larssen happily obliges with the latter.
We get upset when people don’t meet deadlines, but expect them to understand when we miss ours. Instead, if they understand, we should be grateful.
Imagine how you feel when others mess up your deadlines. This is how they feel when you mess up theirs. To compensate for putting someone in a tough place, offer them something that makes up for the inconvenience. Send two articles instead of one, add two extra pages of insightful research in the project, beautify the presentation a little more, offer a slight reduction in fee. You might have made things difficult for her—but if you help her in another way, it will leave a positive impression.
Today, deadlines hanging over your head like swords. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
A pragmatic mindset and the right strategies will help you manage deadlines better. Set more deadlines for work that matters, and fewer for nonessential ones. You will witness a marked improvement in your quality of work and ability to handle stress.
You are more capable than you give yourself credit for. Put your mind in the right areas. Do fewer things, but do them bloody well. You will notice that you don’t have to sacrifice what you like, to do what you must.
And then begins the journey of a fulfilling life.