Everyone has to deal with deadlines. When you were in school, you had homework assignments and long-term projects. Office workers might have to prepare presentations, file documents, gather information for the boss, or complete work for a client. The consequences of missing a deadline might range from a grumpy manager to an angry client and the loss of a contract -- or maybe even the loss of your job.
Deadlines that are weeks or months away are the hardest to manage. How can you organize a large amount of work across such a span of time to ensure the project is done on time? These five tips will help you stay on track with your deadlines. If nothing else, they'll reduce the stress of last-minute workathons.
If there's one sure way to miss a deadline, it's to completely forget about it. If you have a complicated schedule with lots of deadlines, meetings and projects going on, it's essential that you keep a calendar with all your deadline dates on it. Even if your schedule isn't that busy, you still need a place where you can record vital deadlines. A desk or wall calendar will do the trick, and there are lots of productivity software packages that will help you track important dates. Your cell phone or smartphone probably has a calendar function as well, so you'll always have it with you. You can also keep track of important dates via your work e-mail service.
The more elaborate productivity software also lets you organize other information with the calendar. You can keep the names and contact info for the other people working on the project with you, record any research you do regarding your project, or even maintain folders of important files and documents.
If a deadline is two weeks (or two months) away, it can be hard to get started during the first week. There's no sense of urgency. We all fall prey to that feeling of, "I have plenty of time to get this done. I'll work on something else for now." Then, suddenly the deadline is two days away and you haven't even started on the project yet. Or, even worse, you start early and get a few minor things done (not a bad idea by itself), but then feel satisfied that you've made progress and wait too long to get the hard parts completed.
Procrastination might actually be the hardest thing to overcome. Luckily, the solution is pretty simple. All you have to do is break a project down into smaller parts, and then create a schedule that lets you complete each part at different points in the time leading up to the final deadline. You're basically making a bunch of smaller "sub-deadlines" that will incrementally get you to your goal. For example, if you had a week to write a five-page article on meeting work deadlines, your schedule might say: "Monday -- Finish Page 1. Tuesday -- Finish Page 2." And so on.
By the way, that calendar we suggested on the previous page should come in very handy for this.
Delegate Smaller Tasks
You rarely have to complete a work project alone. Maybe it's a department-wide project, or you have co-workers that are in-between projects who can help. Maybe you just have a few interns that are dying to stop making coffee and actually do some real work. Whatever the case, you should take advantage of every pair of hands at your disposal.
If you have access to someone who is especially good at some aspect of the project, don't be too proud to let them get it done. Have you been stuck creating the company newsletter every month? Ask a graphic designer to whip up a logo for you. Have the receptionist who works the front desk and knows everyone in the company by name collect wedding and birth announcements. The moral of the story: It's easier to get things done when you have help.
Use a Soft Deadline
You might have everything planned and scheduled, with smaller tasks delegated so the whole project will be done right on time. That's great -- until a crucial member of your project team misses a week with appendicitis, someone's hard drive crashes and loses vital files, or the client calls and amends the project criteria. Unexpected events can derail even the most solid plan.
Of course, you can't plan for every possibility, so the best defense is a deadline cushion. If it's a two-week deadline, plan to have it done two days early. A two-month project could use a five-day cushion. The more uncertainty built into your project, the larger your cushion. Setting this kind of soft deadline will give you a crucial grace period to deal with unforeseen problems. You might even have time to recover from outright catastrophes.
Imagine how good it will make you look when you can explain how you recovered from an office flood that ruined some files instead of using it as an excuse.
Don't Set Yourself Up to Fail
Some deadlines are non-negotiable, but you usually have the most leeway to move a deadline around before it's been set. Don't take on a two-week task with a one-week deadline unless you're really sure you can get it done. And if your plate is already full, don't hesitate to say no. Most managers would rather hear, "There's no way I can get that done this week, you should find someone else," than, "I was too busy to meet that deadline I accepted last week." Even if you scramble and get it done, it probably won't be your best work.
Another way to work with tough deadlines is to negotiate extra help. For example, "I can get the accounting done, but I'll need Bob to file the documents with the FDA."
You just need to be aware of your capabilities and be reasonable about what you can accomplish. It's far better to be upfront about expectations than to fail to meet them later.
HowStuffWorks looks at companies that have successfully switched from five days of work to four, with spectacular results. So, why don't more try it?
- Cravit, Tammy. "Turn Chaos into Order." The Writer, March 2008.
- Pollock, Ted. "Meeting Work Deadlines." Electric Light & Power, May 1995, Vol. 73, Issue 5.
- Pychyl, Timothy A. "Meeting deadlines in work groups: Implications for the workplace." Psychology Today, June 8, 2008. (Sept. 22, 2010.) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay/200806/meeting-deadlines-in-work-groups-implications-the-workplace