How to deal with impossible deadlines at work

Don't get crushed under the weight of workplace deadlines.

Nothing creates dread in the workplace like tight deadlines, but when well managed they are rarely as impossible as they might seem.

Many of us find ourselves juggling difficult deadlines as we try to clear our desk before the Christmas break. Deadlines are often challenging, sometimes unrealistic and can be highly stressful – which is why so many people try to push back on them.

Despite these pressures, it’s best to accept that deadlines are generally non-negotiable, says Grant Butler, managing director of editorial services consultancy Editor Group, which works with demanding blue-chip clients including the Big Four accounting firms in Australia, Asia and the US.

Accept that it’s got to go

“There comes a point close to a deadline where you have to get your work as neat and complete as possible, then hit send,” Butler says. “The most effective mindset is to do the best you can within the time available, but deadlines can only be met by sending what you have when it’s due – not by thinking time is going to expand to allow you to always achieve perfection.”

Stay cool under pressure

It’s important not to view deadlines as ticking time bombs.

“A lot can get done in a short time if you simply stay calm and don’t let stress cloud your thinking,” Butler says. “Only worry about things when there is clearly a problem, rather than burning emotional energy on false alarms.”

Flag problems early

Don’t suffer in silence.

“If you encounter a problem that risks blowing out the deadline, make it known to your manager,” advises Ruth MacKay, CEO of fundraising organisation OURTEL Solutions. “This will give them the chance to take action early, which is much better than keeping quiet until deadline day arrives and the project is incomplete.”

Set fake deadlines for others

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, deadlines set near the present encourage people to get started on their work, while deadlines further down the track lead to procrastination.

“Tell your team or others that you need their contributions well before you actually do,” Butler says.

Break a deadline into milestones

Even the hardest worker can’t make the impossible possible, but often a deadline only feels impossible because the project itself seems overwhelming, MacKay says. “Break the project up into a series of smaller milestones or deliverables, and set yourself a deadline for each. This will keep you on-track for the final deadline and ensure that the heavy lifting doesn’t all occur at the back end of the project as the final deadline looms.”

Stay organised

Time management tools can be particularly helpful if a project involves collaboration with multiple stakeholders. According to MacKay, tools such as Slack and Asana provide a central dashboard for communication and document management, “so you don’t have to waste time trolling through long email chains to find the information you need”.

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Work in a bubble

This may be easier said than done in today’s open-plan workplaces, but sometimes you need to disconnect. Check email in the morning and before you leave at night, and close it down between these times. It is also important, however, not keep clients or colleagues hanging.

“Consider activating an ‘out of office’ response that explains you’re currently working on an important deadline and will respond to all emails at the end of the day,” MacKay suggests.

Set a soft deadline

Even the best-laid plans can go awry, so establish target finish times that are at least a day out from the real deadline or, even better, allow for a weekend between your target finishing time and the real deadline.

“This gives you plenty of time to correct things if you realise there’s a problem at the last minute, and if you build weekends in, you’ll have 48 hours of uncongested time to get back on track,” Butler advises.

Establish a realistic timeline

Work backwards from the deadline and map out what you’re going to do and when. Importantly, be realistic about how much you or others can get done, rather than being overly ambitious.

Trying to change a deadline is never the best way to meet a deadline, but setting yourself up to fail is worse.

The key to pushing back on deadlines is education, maintains Emma Bannister, CEO of presentation design specialist Presentation Studio.

“Usually, people who are asking for something quickly have left everything to the last minute,” she says. “Have they thought about the impact of delivering something under par just to ‘get it done’? What’s the real purpose of the task they need completing? Is there some wriggle room around the deadline?

“Sometimes, it’s merely a case of saying ‘no’ if it’s unreasonable,” says Bannister.

She points out the risk of delivering something underwhelming that could damage your brand in the long term and says clients will respect you more if they know they can come to you for quality, not a rush job.

Nonetheless, as MacKay notes, when reacting to unreasonable deadlines, it is important to take a proactive, solution-based tone.

For example, “I can get the accounting done, but I’ll need XYZ to file the documents with the ATO.”

Of course, once a deadline is set in stone and the clock ticks down, procrastination and decision paralysis can become your worst enemy.

“Always suck the lemon first,” MacKay says. “Forcing yourself to complete the most difficult task first will help to stop you procrastinating. Once the most difficult task is completed, the rest of the project will feel like a breeze.”

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