Five tips for beating deadlines

Working to a deadline can be tricky business. The trouble starts with all the faulty assumptions that go into setting the due date. Given all the variables, who’s to say the estimate of how long it will take your team to deploy a large system is accurate?

In the worst case, the timeline was set by somebody else – a top-down estimate made by the CEO or imposed by an impatient client. In the best case, you get to set the schedule yourself, and you can add a little padding for comfort. But even when you set the deadlines yourself, you never have perfect knowledge before undertaking the work, so your estimate can be off the mark.

The problems of setting a deadline are soon followed by all the things that can go wrong along the way to finishing the project. Software that you depend on, and that was delivered by an outside supplier, might be more buggy than you assumed. Your interpretation of the requirements might not be in line with your business partner’s or client’s understanding, so you may have to spend time reworking bits and pieces. Or you might have to fight fires on other projects, and thereby put less work in towards the deadline you are expected to meet.

On the bright side, a corollary to Parkinson’s law sometimes comes into play. As you recall, Parkinson’s law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. A corollary to that law is that if the estimates are at least in the right ball park, most of us are able to adjust and meet the deadline. Of course, this assumes we really want to finish the project, which brings me to the third set of problems that crop up when you try to meet deadlines.

When everything is going well - when you start with a good estimate and you manage to overcome all the unexpected issues along the way - there’s still one thing that stands between you and finishing on time: procrastination. When you need to summon your strongest motivation, the work suddenly seems boring and unimportant. Most of us struggle with procrastination in one way or another without really understanding why.

Sometimes people think they put off work because it’s boring, or because they believe they work better in a crunch. But researchers have found that these perceptions are just conscious representations of something else that’s really going on underneath. In almost all cases, procrastination is avoidance behavior caused by bad feelings about the task, or a fear of what the outcome means.

 Five tips to help you finish on time

Let’s go over five things you can do to maximise your chances of finishing on time and to the satisfaction of the key stakeholders, as well as to your own satisfaction:

1. Play an active role in scheduling. Try to set the schedule yourself, or at least try to have a say in setting the schedule. If you aren’t invited to play an active role right away, try to position yourself to be included next time. 

If you don’t get involved in setting the schedule, ask questions about what assumptions underlie the plan. Push back when somebody sets an unreasonable deadline. Let everybody know about all the other things you’re working on.

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Make sure you don’t come across as trying to avoid work. Instead take the attitude (and let it be known) that reasonable plans are in the best interest of all parties, and you’re doing your best to help set achievable objectives.

2. Rethink your attitude towards the project if necessary. If you don’t feel like you have a choice in doing the work, or if your self esteem is otherwise threatened by the outcome of the project, you’ll tend to procrastinate. Manage your attitude towards the activity and try to position it in the context of your personal goals.

Think carefully about whether you are motivated to perform the project more out of the prospect of success or out of fear of failure. If you have the mindset that you are mostly seeking gain, then you’re more likely to finish the project on time. It’s when you fear failure, and when you view possible failure as a reflection of your self-worth, that you’ll tend to put off the work.

3. Keep stakeholders informed during project execution. Because problems tend to crop up during the execution of a task, it’s always good to keep all the stakeholders informed. They may have good ideas that will help you out of a bind, or maybe they are willing to modify the schedule based on new knowledge you provide them.

To ease the process of keeping people informed, it’s always best to lay the ground work for ongoing dialogue. Spend a little time building a relationship with stakeholders without coming across as insincere. Take a personal interest in their points of view and their needs.

By all means, let the stakeholders know about positive results as well. You don’t want people to think you only come to them with bad news, and it always helps to keep your sponsors feeling warm and fuzzy.

4. Highlight problems early and negotiate schedule adjustments as appropriate. More than just keeping stakeholders informed, make sure you let them know when problems come up that might prevent you from finishing on time. Explain the problem clearly, and with some emotional distance. You certainly don’t want to sound like you’re panicking.

5. Communicate the value of your work. Not only should you finish on time, but also put the finishing touches on your work and package it nicely. When you complete something it’s no good to anybody else unless they can use it. Make it easy for them to understand what you’ve done and make sure they’re able to put it to use.

If you follow these five tips regularly, you’ll find you get more things done on time - and more importantly, you’ll feel good about working to deadlines.

Keep your projects on target