How To Stick To Deadlines

Ah, deadlines—one of the most feared words in the English language.

Most people would admit to having a problem with deadlines, either because they are perpetually unable to meet them, or because they only just manage it each time and drive themselves crazy about how they should have started earlier.

Not being able to meet deadlines has all kinds of root causes that extend beyond pure laziness: procrastination, a too-heavy schedule, depression, forgetfulness, and a lack of focus. Learning how to stick to deadlines is really about combatting these issues. Here’s how to do it:

1. Look At The Big Picture

I hate to break it to you, cupcake, but you need to be able to meet deadlines. The world will not bend to your personal schedule, and you will be a much better student, employee and friend if you are capable of honoring your commitments.

One way to motivate yourself is to think about what your goals are for the future. Do you want to get an A in a class? Get a promotion? Write a novel? Be an amazing Maid of Honor?

The road to all of these things is actually meeting your deadlines.

2. Take Care Of The Little Things

Sometimes it’s not the big deadlines, but the little things, that trip us up. You may be great at turning in papers but not so good at staying on top of laundry or doing your taxes. The mundane tasks can feel inconsequential—until they get in the way of achieving a goal because they cause you so much stress and inconvenience.

Each day is a stepping stone to something you’re working for, and staying on top of these little things is part of that. Keep a to-do list, and assign tasks to certain days rather than a general, “I will do this… some day.”

3. Prioritize Your Tasks

Let’s talk about Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle. Tasks can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Important and Urgent
  • Important but Not Urgent
  • Not Important but Urgent
  • Not Important and Not Urgent

Ideally, you will spend most of your time working on tasks that fall into the second category—not letting them become urgent—and you’ll want to leave some time in your schedule in case something urgent does arise. As for the non-urgent and non-important stuff, ignore it until you have a free moment, and don’t let it swamp your other tasks.

You may find it useful to keep a kind of “future to-do list:” one that isn’t for weekly tasks but distant goals. I keep a document of all my article ideas (sometimes with a suggested deadline) so that I won’t forget them, and to stop myself from starting then abandoning them.

4. Make That Deadline Famous

If a deadline is important, I write it down everywhere. It goes on my fridge, in my phone, and on a post-it on my desk. I tell everyone about it and invite them to call me up and make sure I’m getting on with it.

Even if I have a “soft” deadline, such as getting back to someone via email or making a hair appointment, I’ll ask my fiancé to remind me about it. I also always keep my to-do list handy so I can’t just forget it.

5. Count Backwards From The Deadline Date

Think about your deadline date. How much time do you need to get the task done?

One of the biggest issues with meeting deadlines is that people underestimate how much time they really need and don’t plan accordingly. If you think a task will take a week to complete, give yourself 10 days. There’s no downside to finishing your work early—and trust me, people will love you for it.

6. Work Little And Often

You’re going to have days where it’s not feasible to sit down and work for hours at a time. The trick to not letting days just get away from you is chipping away at your work little by little.

When I was writing my Master’s thesis, there were days when I had to go to work, help out a friend, or make some arrangements for my upcoming move. I only stayed on top of my writing because I made sure to work every day, even if it was just for half an hour, so that I never became completely disconnected from the project.

7. Figure Out What Procrastination Is Giving You

Are procrastinators really just lazy? Doubtful. Most procrastinators have something else going on, whether that is depression, perfectionism, or even a kind of rebellion against the task at hand.

Maybe you have a task at work that you resent doing, so you just put it off. Maybe you pitched an article, but now you’re blocked and terrified of writing something stupid. Procrastination isn’t illogical or ridiculous because it is actually giving you something: distance from a task you resent or fear.

The only way to stop procrastinating is to investigate what you’re so worried about. For me, it is often about perfectionism, and I trick myself out of it by considering the worst case scenario: OK, so I need to write an article, but I’m worried people won’t like it—what is the worst case scenario here? I write something, it kind of sucks, and someone trolls me in the comments? LD kicks me off the team? Really? Once I have that out the way, I usually feel better and can at least knock out a first draft.

8. Have A “No Excuses” Mentality

I think one of my main strengths is that I don’t make excuses for myself. When I cut too close to a deadline, or fail spectacularly at something, I take a beat to figure out why, rather than ignoring the issue altogether.

I messed up big time on a final paper deadline in grad school and had to ask for an incomplete. Afterwards, I was ashamed and angry and I just wanted to drop out of the program altogether. Once I’d calmed down, I looked back on the semester and evaluated what had happened. I recognized that I spent the whole semester focused on immediate deadlines, and that I let too much work pile up at the end.

The following semester, I paid attention to tasks that were not urgent but important, and made sure to work on my final projects from the very beginning. I ended that semester with As in every single class—which would not have happened if I hadn’t taken ownership of my earlier mistakes.

9. Communicate Ahead Of Time

As an editor, I don’t mind if someone says, “I’m going to need two weeks to get this finished” or even if they want to reschedule for a later date. I do mind if they tell me on the day, with no prior warning, that they still haven’t finished whatever was promised.

10. Beware Of Distractions

One of the biggest challenges these days is technology. We have music, TV and social media at our fingertips at all times, and this makes it easy to forget you’re in the middle of a task. Make a clear distinction between whether you are working or not—and if you are, close those non-work tabs.

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I got serious about avoiding distractions when I was preparing for my thesis defense. I logged out of Netflix and made sure no one told me the password. I only checked Facebook and emails on my phone, and only during designated breaks. I turned my phone off when I was studying and returned messages later.

11. Don’t Take On Too Much

Repeat after me: “I am really interested in this opportunity, but I won’t be able to get it done in this timeframe. Would X date be acceptable instead?”

Like many people, I have a habit of saying yes to everything then realizing that I am going to be completely drained. Sometimes it’s helpful to defer to someone else who is close to you about whether or not you can handle one more thing. If they look at you like, Girl you crazy, you know you’re probably being overambitious.

12. Embrace The Chaos

It can feel good to crush a deadline by staying up all night, drinking coffee and eating donuts. A lot of us get a buzz from trying to beat the clock—and we may even feel like it’s the time we’re at our most creative.

I love writing at night. I love that it’s quiet, that I’m so tired I don’t care what words are on the page, and that I only have so many hours left in me before I have to give up and sleep. Occasionally I will induce these feelings by taking a “strategic all-nighter.” But, rather than waiting until the night before the deadline, I do it in advance, so that I can still edit my work when I’m well-rested and not bingeing on Sour Patch Kids.

It’s totally fine to pull an all-nighter from time to time, but don’t make it the only way you handle deadlines.

13. Be Strict With Yourself

You don’t have to beat yourself up over every single deadline, but if you feel your resolve wavering when you know you have stuff to do, don’t say, “Oh, that’s OK.” Say, “You are an adult,” and get that shit done, soldier.

14. Take Real Breaks And Vacations

Just as you need to remove all distractions when you are working, you need to have time when you are not thinking about work. Take a real break from whatever you’re doing: go for a walk, work out, cook a meal, call your mother or read a book. Do something fun!

Additionally, if you take a vacation, let everyone know you’ll be unreachable and don’t be sorry about it. People existed before the internet and cell phones, and, for most people at least, it’s just not necessary to be reachable at all times.

Even if you haven’t been as productive as you wanted to be or you have missed a deadline completely, don’t punish yourself. You still deserve time to de-stress, and once you’re recharged you can figure out how to do better next time.


How do you stick to deadlines? Tweet us @LitDarling!

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