Deadlines, huh? Couldn’t they have picked a cheerier word?
Apparently not. And the history of the word is actually darker than you might have imagined. It seems to go back to the Civil War, when the deadline was an actual line of death marked around a prison, over which “the projection of a foot or finger is sure to bring the deadly bullet of the sentinel”. Doesn’t that make you feel better about your assignment’s due date?
It gets worse: some dead lines were drawn around individual prisoners just to make them uncomfortable. Say, on a hot day, just out of reach of water. One finger stretches out for a cup, and bam! You crossed your deadline, soldier…
If the word has since evolved to mean a metaphorical line in time that mustn’t be crossed, it can feel just as serious when you’re in the fug of a work task that just seems too big for the period your boss has given you to complete it.
And it’s no wonder that work deadlines – which might otherwise be seen as a lovely, happy moment of freedom to anticipate – feel so cruel and unnatural. Our brains haven’t really adapted to deal with them. With one eye on the clock and one on the job at hand, we fidget and sweat like that Union man out in the baking Georgia sun.
There are good scientific reasons why our brains struggle to cope with deadlines – and learning about these can help you make better use of a few tools we have to keep us safely within them.
One such issue is the ‘Planning Fallacy’. We’ve known about this one since researchers defined it way back in 1977, but hey-ho… we never learn. At its simplest level, it states that we base our estimates on how long a task will take with the best-case scenario in mind. We don’t allow for things going wrong, or we blind ourselves to the experience that everything always takes longer than planned. Remember at college when you reckoned that essay could be done in a day, so you left it until the day of the deadline? This is that.
Another is a strange time-travel trick our minds play on us. When you give a task a deadline, your perception of the amount of time you have until it comes swells with the size of the task. Deadlines for ‘big’ projects feel further away than they are. Once again, this means it’s easy to leave things too late.
And if you had a particularly unstable childhood, bad news: those who had chaotic youths tend to be worse at time-management once they reach adulthood. If that sounds like you, you’ll need the forthcoming deadline tips more than anyone.
How to beat that deadline?
With these issues in mind, it becomes easier to strategize, get stuck in, and beat that deadline. It’s all too tempting to push an assignment to the back of your mind until the deadline is imminent, but the first thing you should do when you receive it is to think it through and get organized: you may not need to begin the actual work straight away, but it’ll save you unnecessary stress and surprises later on.
1. Define some parameters
The first step is to make sure you understand just what your assignment is. It may seem straightforward at a glance, but the time to ask questions is now – not as the clock ticks down on the day of reckoning. Try to figure out why your task is important, what it’s actually for, and what you should prioritize.
What would be a successful outcome – and how can you measure how successful or otherwise the project becomes? Who are you reporting to and what are their preferences? In what format should you present the finished assignment – what are the deliverables, and is there likely to be feedback or revision requests?
Nearly half of all employees claim they regularly find themselves with no idea of what they’re expected to do next. If you allow yourself to be one of these people, your work will become more difficult – and you’re more likely to find yourself having to re-do stuff as that deadline gets closer.
2. Get tooled up
Just as you need to know what’s expected of you, you need tools, information, and other resources to get the job done. Picking things up along the way is more likely to end up in delay and disappointment.
Say you’ve been asked to compile a report about some facts and figures. Do you have those figures to hand? Being made to wait for them will throw the design process out of sync. Do you have a template to work to, or particular graphics you’re expected to use? Starting without them will just add to your workload later on.
Get everything set up at the beginning, and you will feel much more prepared to do a good job. Delay picking up a particular asset, and you will probably end up needing it just when it’s unavailable – fresh printer ink when the store’s shut, car hire when the guy who signs off on expenses is out of the office.
Make sure you have the software you need, it’s working fine on your computer, and that you can export appropriate, compatible files for whoever’s waiting on you.
3. Diagram it out
Have you heard of Critical Path Analysis? It sounds kind of cool. In fact, it’s pretty dull stuff – but it can help you work a lot more effectively ahead of your deadline.
Critical Path Analysis works in two ways. In the first case, it helps you to prioritize concurrent tasks and arrange your workflow to be as efficient as possible. In the second case, it can empower you to visualize your overarching project and maintain a more realistic ‘feeling’ of what you need to do and how it fits into your deadline.
It’s basically a map of your tasks. Write down every step of your project, and then arrange them on a piece of paper, with a circle around each one to keep it separate. Simultaneous tasks can be placed one above another, and consequent tasks on a horizontal line. That way, you can always see what needs to be done and when, and save yourself from suddenly discovering you missed a step because it should have been done at the same time as something else.
4. Stay realistic
Folk can be pretty big-headed. Most of us think we’re smarter and more attractive than we really are. When it comes to deadlines, we think we’re quicker and more adept at the task in question than reality later proves. And as that deadline flies by, we’re forced to confront that awful truth… you’re just not as hot as you think!
That’s until the next task, of course. When the next assignment lands on your desk, you forget how badly it went last time or you assume this one will go better. That can be good for the self-esteem, but if you want to get decent work done on time, you need to get real.
It can be as simple as leaving extra time in case you find yourself struggling. Assess, objectively, how long it might take. If you’re in a position to negotiate, let the person who’s waiting on you know what you believe you can achieve and when. Or it may mean asking for help or training before you get started.
5. Divide and conquer
Remember that bit about how big tasks seem to make the deadline more distant? Breaking that assignment down into mini-tasks with informal shorter-term deadlines can help you to stay more realistic about how much time you’ve got.
Use a calendar or make a chart – you can divide it by hours, days, or sub-tasks. Or you can add dates and deadlines to your Critical Path Analysis. If it helps, you can even colour-code it: green for easy tasks, orange for tasks that require a bit more time and thought, and red to warn you when a real time-eater of a sub-task is on the horizon.
6. Eliminate distractions
Dividing your tasks will help to avoid distractions because each block of time seems smaller and more valuable. But it’s still all too easy to get sucked into YouTube, driving your girlfriend here, there, and everywhere, or constantly refreshing your emails.
You need boundaries. Set yourself some rules – but don’t make them cruel. Give yourself a ten-minute break every hour to watch something funny and clear your mind. Wipe Facebook off your phone and log-out at work – you can use it in your leisure time. Put an hour aside each day for clearing your inbox – and ignore your email the rest of the day through.
And expand those boundaries to the people around you. Tell the guy at the next desk you’re too busy to help with his tech issues right now. Tell your other half that even though you’re working at home, you need to keep regular office hours in your study.
7. Topload your schedule
Experts reckon we’re most effective at work when we get our most difficult or stressful tasks out of the way first.
Before you even check your emails, try to nuke one nagging task rather than perpetually putting it off. The boost of getting this out of the way will improve your confidence and your rhythm as the day progresses.
And when the end of the day approaches, you can tick off some of the easier stuff as your mind winds down and you start to daydream of home-time.
8. Use actual tools
Mental strategies like the ones we’ve covered are all well and good, but there’s nothing like getting some robot help.
Think about whether there are any elements of your project that you can automate. If you can think of a dull and repetitive task that’s causing you problems and eating your time, a quick Google search will often reveal that somebody’s already thought it through and made an app for it.
Even your schedule can be automated. Todoist is a free app (with premium options) that works with your other software packages to organize your schedule and prompt you to do the right things at the right time. It’s also a pretty satisfying way of tracking your progress.
You can use your Facebook or Google account to log in, so there isn’t too much hassle getting signed up and started. You then begin to build your workflow by adding stages in the form of hashtagged tasks. Each one has a date, and you can tick them off as you go. Feels good! Todoist works with your iPhone or Android device too, so you should never miss a reminder.
And it beats countless poorly-scribbled Post-It notes that always seem to wind up falling under the desk and going missing.
9. Fear commitment
Well, don’t fear it – but at least question it. As we know, big tasks make deadlines seem further off – which makes it easy to foolishly take on more work in the meantime.
Be honest with yourself and with your colleagues or boss. If you have too much work, learn to say No – otherwise your standards will drop, your health will suffer, and that deadline will begin to look less and less realistic.
10. Ask for an extension
It sounds obvious, but it’s something we tend to resist when we’ve been given a hard deadline. It might be a question of pride, or just tunnel vision: asking for an extension feels, well, out of the question.
Try it. It’s astonishing how liberating it feels to get an extension. And it usually turns out not to have been as big a deal as you imagined when you were up to your eyeballs in stress. Ask in person rather than over email if you can, since eye contact is likely to make your boss more empathetic towards your situation.
And hey, if you get an extension, hold off on that partying, okay? It’s time to start at the top and work through these ten steps all over again, but this time working towards the new deadline.
This handy infographic from SavingSpot makes for a useful deadline-busting checklist once you’re familiar with the basics.
Some people have it harder to meet deadlines than an average Joe. If nothing works for you, give someone you trust a round sum of money with a condition that they can give it back to you ONLY when you accomplish your task on time. You don’t want to lose money for something you eventually have to do anyway, right? Now you have to accomplish your goal!
Good luck, and stay realistic.