Under pressure: How to stick to project deadlines

“It’s not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. The question is: What are you industrious about?”

Henry David Thoreau

It goes without saying that blowing deadlines can have adverse consequences, whether it’s losing your self-confidence, eroding a manager’s trust, or costing your company money.

And missing deadlines too often can magnify those consequences.

“Deadlines are easy to set in the moment, and if we set future deadlines unwisely, it can turn into a trap we’ve set for ourselves in the future,” University of Chicago marketing professor Oleg Urminsky said in a 2015 Chicago Booth Review interview.

It’s a scary thought, but it doesn’t need to be.

Our founder and CEO, Aytekin Tank, has written about scheduling your priorities strategically around your daily productivity rhythm.  

We’ve taken that advice to heart and compiled a list of additional tips — backed by academic research — that can help you manage your time, take control of your schedule, and get work done without pulling out your hair.

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”

Miles Davis
  1. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to setting or meeting deadlines.

  2. According to Urminksy, the deadlines you set for employees — and how you approach them — should depend on the work environment and the type of work that’s involved.

    When the work that needs to be done is quantifiable and repetitive, managers should draw on past data to set realistic deadlines and a lot of smaller ones leading up to the drop-dead date.

    When workers must be flexible and adapt to situations, managers should collaborate with their employees to set deadlines that provide the needed flexibility and a motivational benefit. In these cases, employees may know more than managers about the scope of work and the pace needed to complete tasks or projects at various points in time, Urminsky said.

  3. Write deadlines down or save them in your calendar along with any notes.

  4. This sounds like a no-brainer, but when you’re jumping from one meeting to the next or reprioritizing duties throughout the day, planned tasks can get lost in the shuffle. That’s why it’s better to take a minute (or less) to jot down deadlines — either by hand or with a note-taking app — while they are still top of mind.

    If you wait until later, you may forget key project details, or even worse, forget about the project altogether.

  5. Set realistic deadlines that make sense.

  6. Deadlines — and the dread of missing one — can serve as an effective motivator, but researchers warn that people may set themselves up for failure if due dates are too ambitious.

    Part of the problem is that people set challenging deadlines to motivate themselves but find that they can’t meet them, according to University of Chicago behavioral science and marketing professor Ayelet Fishbach.

    People also tend to miss deadlines because they underestimate how many other things must be accomplished in the future, she said.

    When employees are allowed to set their own deadlines and expect a task to be hard, Fishbach’s research has found that they will establish self-imposed deadlines that are earlier than expected.

    “One thing that we know about deadlines is that, before they loom large, you do nothing about it,” Fishbach said in the Chicago Booth Review interview.

    She explained that you should set a deadline “so it motivates you or your employees,” but don’t set it so far in the future that “you don’t care about it at the moment.”  

  7. Set aside space and time to work and be creative.

  8. While teams often work together to meet deadlines, some researchers suggest that  employees and managers in more creative roles need space to innovate.

    That was a key finding in a 2007 case study by Harvard Business School professor Teresa M. Amabile, whose research included work logs from 26 creative project teams in seven different companies across three industries.

    Her research discovered that people under significant time pressure on a particular day would feel productive and creative but were actually less likely to develop creative ideas or solve problems that day.

    “Even though they felt creative, I think they were feeling a lot of adrenaline from being under time pressure, getting a lot done, but what they tended to get done was not their most important work,” Amabile said in a 2017 Harvard Business School podcast.

    What they did “was a lot of stuff that came flying at them, crises that arose, that kind of thing,” she said.

    But workers under low to moderate time pressure often came up with new ideas and creative solutions when they didn’t have to juggle other tasks that arose throughout the day, such as unrelated meetings.  

    “Under low time pressure, if people were in a big team where they didn’t have solo time, they actually tended to not be creative under those conditions,” Amabile said.

    “So that alone time or working with just one close collaborator seemed to be the key under the low time pressure conditions,” she said.

    There was, however, a key caveat.

    Workers under high time pressure did exhibit a high level of creativity when “they absolutely understood the need for the time pressure,” such as releasing a product ahead of a competitor or helping a customer in desperate need, Amabile said.   

  9. Break large tasks into subtasks.

  10. This may sound like a peculiar approach, but a 2016 study led by Columbia Business School professor Keith Wilcox has found that it can work.

    That study analyzed more than 500,000 tasks submitted by thousands of people who used an unnamed task management software application.

    The results found that busy people often believe they are good at managing their time effectively and are more motivated to complete a task after a missed deadline than those people who are not busy.

    Since missing a deadline is “a widely-accepted sign” that someone hasn’t managed their time well, busy people tend to “feel the burden of this failure moreso than people who are not busy,” Wilcox said in a 2018 Columbia Business School press release.

    Though non-busy people shared this same perception of failure, the study found that many of them weren’t particularly motivated to finish the task anyway.

    The study, however, warns against giving very busy employees too much work, since they may disengage from a task altogether when they start feeling “overwhelmed” and “overloaded,” according to the press release.  

    Instead, the study suggests that making workers feel busier can boost productivity. Large tasks, for instance, can be broken into smaller subtasks so employees believe they are busy even though no additional work is being given to them. Simple self-reminders of the different tasks that must be done can help to boost productivity, Wilcox said.

  11. Set aside time to review your progress and organize your schedule.

  12. It’s easy for things to get lost in the shuffle when you’re juggling so many tasks simultaneously.

    That’s why it’s important for you to focus not only on the most immediate deadlines but also on those that come afterward, according to Urminsky.

    “There are some times when you may be more likely to spontaneously remember deadlines, but any deadline is going to — at least to some degree — blind you a bit to the deadlines that come after it,” Urminsky said.

    “It takes effort to go against our natural tendency to focus on the most salient thing and return those to our memory and keep them in our memory,” he said.  

How do you manage your deadlines, and what strategies have worked well for you? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

Darin is a content writer at JotForm. He is passionate about disrupting perceptions, solving problems, and helping people be more productive with the easiest online form builder. Outside of the office, he is a rush-hour straphanger, adventure seeker, coffee drinker, and frequent traveler. You can contact Darin through his contact form.

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