Analysis: there are some steps to take to make deadlines our friend rather than our enemy

Deadlines are a frequent source of worry, and lots of sleep is lost as deadlines for projects and tasks approach. There is no doubt that deadlines can be beneficial; it is commonly reported that virtually everything that happens in a negotiation ahead of the deadline is all for show, with the real work of finding an agreement barely starting before the deadline looms.

A deadline can keep you focused, and they are often a crucial tool in time management. But deadlines do little more than create an impending feeling of doom for most people, so what can we do to make deadlines our friend rather than our enemy?

It is easier to make a list to what does not work. Some people like to set their clocks a few minutes ahead on the theory that they will be less likely to be late. This was a favorite strategy in my wife's family. Unfortunately, it is hard to fool yourself and people often quickly adjust, knowing that the real time is 10 minutes earlier than what the clock shows. Similarly, calendar reminders such as "your deadline is 10 days from now" rarely help all that much.

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One strategy that can help is to break deadlines into smaller milestones. It might seem counterproductive to solve the problem of deadlines by creating lots of smaller deadlines, but this can work. If each milestone is relatively easy to accomplish, the fact that you accomplish them can reduce the stress of the overall deadline and can help you move toward accomplishing them.

Sometimes my doctoral students will get stuck writing, and they can feel helpless about getting a whole dissertation written, no matter how much time they have. I encourage them to start by writing a paragraph a day. When they feel good about this, move to two paragraphs, three paragraphs and finally a page or two a day. Accomplishing small milestones can build a sense that you've got this.

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Another strategy that can help is to switch from hard to soft deadlines.I know if I set a deadline that is set in stone that 95% of my students will not do that assignment until the night before it is due. A good number of them will struggle (some unsuccessfully) to meet the deadline. It is usually better to create a deadline with some flexibility (if you need input from your team by August 1, create a July 15 deadline) and give people who are struggling some extra time.

There are two frequent suggestions for reducing the stress deadlines can create. The first is to plan ahead and keep an eye on your progress toward the deadline. It is often plain to people well ahead of time that they will not make a deadline, particularly those who had established a clear plan for meeting a deadline. This planning can help alert you and the people who depend on you to meet a deadline that it might not be met.

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Advance planning and advance notice can make all of the difference. If I notify my boss a week in advance that a particular deadline is going to be difficult to meet, this can leave time to readjust plans and schedules. If I notify my boss at 1am that tomorrow's deadline will not be met, everyone might be up the creek without a paddle.

More and more business leaders are suggesting that we use techniques such as meditation and exercise to reduce the stress deadlines can produce. Another suggestion is to establish priorities. It is often said that you should do the hardest tasks first, but it is often more useful to do the most important tasks first. A partial completion of an assignment that has accomplished the essentials but perhaps left off the less critical tasks is often more valuable than holding up everything so you can complete every aspect of your assignment.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, a brief history of time management

You should also establish realistic standards. One of the mottos I encourage my students to internalize is "perfect is the enemy of good". If what you have accomplished as the deadline looms is good but not perfect, live with it! You should do your best to complete tasks and projects on time, especially when others depend on your work.

In the end, very few things we do in the workplace are truly so important that they are worth losing sleep over. An employee who consistently gets the important stuff done in a reasonable amount of time is more valuable that someone who always turns in beautiful-looking but shallow and pointless reports by the deadline.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ