How to Meet a Deadline
Delivering Timely Results
Who doesn't love a deadline? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the answer is, "Most of us, actually!"
Deadlines are the bane of many people's working lives, and a source of relentless and worrying pressure. But they're important for almost any task and any role, and they're essential for the smooth running of your organization.
In this article we explore why deadlines matter. We explain practical steps that you can take to meet your own deadlines, and show how you can support others to meet theirs.
Why Deadlines Matter
Typically, we have deadlines for one of the following reasons:
- To ensure that we complete our work. It's easy to delay or to forget a task that has no agreed end point. Deadlines help to avoid this.
- To encourage a smooth flow of work. Deadlines help us to collaborate toward achieving a shared goal, and to keep complex, multistage projects on track.
- To set expectations. Deadlines make clear what we're expected to deliver and when. This means that we can take control of our work, free of confusion.
There can also be serious consequences for failing to meet a deadline. On a personal level, it can damage your reputation and harm your career prospects – especially if it happens more than once.
It can also be extremely damaging at an organizational level. Missing a deadline will likely impact your company's reputation, and it can have serious financial implications if your delay triggers a penalty clause in a contract.
There are two main areas to focus on when you have to hit a deadline: managing the deadline, and managing yourself.
Managing a Deadline
Chances are, most of us simply accept the deadline that we're given. But it's important to consider it properly before agreeing to it.
People often underestimate how long it takes to complete projects, so the deadline you've been set could be unrealistic. And sometimes deadlines are set unnecessarily early to prevent problems from arising when delivery is late.
So, what should you do before agreeing to a deadline? Here are five steps to follow:
1. Evaluate What's Required
First, you need to understand exactly what the task involves. If your deadline is for a complicated task or project, see our articles, Business Requirements Analysis and Work Breakdown Structures, to identify and map out what work needs to be done.
Ideally, the person who set the deadline will have taken into account the complexity of the work. But our article, Estimating Time Accurately, is packed full of tips and strategies for setting realistic and manageable timelines.
2. Get the Right Resources
Next, make sure that you have what you need to get the job done promptly. Will you have the people, technical support, equipment, training, or materials ready and available in time? If not, you may have to suggest a longer schedule, or a lowering of the quality or quantity of work that you'll deliver on time.
3. Allow for Problems
Things don't always go to plan, so it's wise to think about potential problems. For example, how would illness, equipment failure, or an unexpectedly urgent and important competing task affect your plans?
Consider what contingencies you could draw up to minimize the impact. You might, for example, consider briefing a co-worker so that he or she can cover for you or another member of your team in an emergency.
4. Plan in Detail
The next step is to create a detailed schedule. A good approach is often to break tasks down into small components and to create deadlines for each one.
As a result, you might find that you're going to need more time than the overall deadline allows. Be sure to raise this as an issue as soon as possible, and avoid simply hoping for the best!
The ability to see how you're progressing can be very motivating, and it can help you to immediately identify tasks that haven't been done. Our article, Gantt Charts, describes how to use this popular visual scheduling tool.
5. Limit the Damage of a Missed Deadline
Despite all your hard work and forethought, you might still miss a deadline. If this happens, keep calm and make every effort to limit the damage.
Keep your stakeholders informed of progress throughout your work, highlighting any issues that delay you, and show that you are putting your contingency plans into action. Then, if you do fail to deliver on time, more people will understand the situation – and some might be prepared to help you.
In such a situation, it's best to deal with the immediate problem quickly, and to agree and meet a new deadline. Then, hold a project review to identify what went wrong and to guard against a repeat.
However, missing a deadline can have wider implications. For example, as we mentioned earlier, if you are working with an outside client or organization, there could be a financial penalty. It may also harm your reputation. In any case, be sure to take responsibility, to avoid making excuses, and to focus on delivering whatever you can as soon as possible.
The other important factor in meeting a deadline is you! If you have the right mindset, the self-discipline, and are organized, then you're almost "home and dry!"
Here are some ideas to consider:
- Be assertive. Learn to say "no," if appropriate, or to at least give yourself space to evaluate a deadline before you agree to it.
- Adjust your mindset. Adopt a positive attitude toward deadlines, instead of resenting them. Deadlines can help you to achieve goals that you might otherwise put off.
- Don't mistake "planning" for "doing." No matter how good a plan you have, that is all it is – a plan. Once you have it, put it into action.
- Make good use of your time. Avoid trying to multitask, as it's not efficient. And keep track of your time to help you to work effectively, especially when the deadline is close.
- Beat self-sabotaging behaviors. If you know that you procrastinate, for example, work on addressing this.
Understand your motivations. Research shows that some people just aren't inspired by deadlines. If that's you, consider what does motivate you. Is it doing a good job, getting praise and recognition, or having free time to do the things that you enjoy? Meeting your deadline will likely help in all of these areas.
- Make meeting deadlines a habit. Start by working toward smaller deadlines in your daily work, and transfer this habit to bigger ones when they arise.
Helping Others to Meet Deadlines
As a manager, you likely know who in your team is confident and capable of meeting deadlines, and who needs more support.
Remember, deadlines that you've set for your people become their responsibility, but you can help them to succeed. For example, encouraging them to develop their self-confidence can equip them to handle the pressure of deadlines.
Allow your people to show initiative and set their own deadlines, where appropriate. Research shows that this can improve performance.
Deadlines are essential for the smooth running of your organization. They keep work flowing, and ensure that everyone is working to an agreed end date.
When you're managing deadlines, consider the following:
- Evaluate what's required.
- Get the right resources.
- Allow for problems.
- Plan in detail.
- Limit the damage of a missed deadline.
Your own attitude and mindset play crucial roles, too. Think positively, make good use of your time, and don't get bogged down in the planning phase.
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