Taming Deadline Pressure to Make It Work for You

Managing your time effectively is one of the most critical skills to help you advance in your career because people trust (and promote) those who do what they say they will do when they say they will do it. That often means working within established deadlines, or setting them for yourself. Used effectively, deadlines can help you bring a task to timely completion. But they can also drive unrealistic expectations, last-minute rushes to the finish line or paralyzing guilt or fear about missing the mark.
Deadlines as foe
Largely based on some faulty research in the early 1900s called the Yerkes-Dodson “law,” early management science picked up on the idea that more stress leads to better performance. Unfortunately, the practice of setting overly aggressive deadlines and goading people to move mountains to meet them grew out of that idea that pressure drives performance.
In reality, unrealistic deadlines are often less motivating and become paralyzing by creating a sense of overwhelm and causing some people to become frozen by fear of failure. Sometimes, we even do this to ourselves by agreeing to something we know we can’t realistically accomplish, or by putting something off until the final hour and then trying to pull off a miracle. It can even be an unconscious strategy of perfectionism to set or agree to outlandish deadlines and then blame poor performance on a lack of time.
Deadlines as friend
It doesn’t have to be that way. Realistic, perhaps a bit challenging, deadlines can sharpen your focus and energize efforts to move work forward. According to time management coach and author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, deadlines can function as a personal prioritization tool and provide an effective way to assess your workload. As a deadline approaches, it can prompt you to cut out other tasks and meetings that can be postponed to ensure a pressing deadline can be met. It can also be highly satisfying to complete a project on time, she says.
These are her best practices for using deadlines to boost your personal productivity rather than hamper it.
  • Set deadlines for things that really matter - Saunders cautions against setting deadlines for everything someone asks you to do. She suggests instead the response, “I’ve added it to my to-do list,” for lower priority work. She also suggests less exact deadlines when something more general will do. Both those notes might sound too loosey-goosey for your work environment at first, but may be worth some experimentation. If your boss asks for a draft budget, can you commit to have it by the end of the week rather than Noon Thursday? Setting artificially demanding deadlines adds pressure without benefit, according to Saunders. Setting strict deadlines for nearly everything can also crowd out high priority tasks that actually require them. Making a deadline public can also help with important projects as it can increase accountability while also engaging others who may need to contribute.
  • Create mini-deadlines instead of one completion date. Building in smaller and shorter deadlines within a much larger project can decrease the possibility of procrastination and enable you to refine components as you share them for feedback along the way.
  • Plan for problems. If your boss needs the report by Friday, it may be wise to set a deadline for yourself of having it by Thursday. That will help you deal with unexpected snags and provide enough time to both complete the work in a quality manner and double check it. Especially for large and complex projects, it’s wise to assume that nothing will go as smoothly or quickly as you hope. When you plan for problems, you can avoid the Planning Fallacy which describes the human tendency to underestimate how much time a future task will take, its likely difficulty and the costs and risks associated with it.
  • Keep others in the loop. Missing deadlines is stressful, but panicking won’t help. Take a deep breath, step back to see where the issues are and then decide if you need to ask for reinforcements. Let key stakeholders know where things stand, how they can help and what the revised timeline will be. Keeping others informed of progress also means pointing out to them at the start and throughout how their ability to meet interim deadlines will affect the final deliverable.
Deadlines are a big part of life, both professional and personal, and learning to master effective deadline strategies can significantly improve your performance. Start on the front end by assessing whether a firm deadline is truly warranted for a particular project. When you do decide to set or agree to a firm deadline, use it as a priority-setting and tracking tool that helps you focus on critical activities and marshal your own and other resources to meet them. 

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