Dear Lifehacker, I know everyone has to deal with them, but deadlines make me feel anxious and even paralysed sometimes. Is there something I can do to make deadlines less awful and deal with them better? Signed, Distraught over Deadlines
We hear you. Deadlines can be incredibly stressful (even the word sounds ominous: "DEADLINES"). The closer we get to a deadline, tension mounts and we start to feel like we're running out of time. However, even though we can't control time or get rid of deadlines altogether, it is possible to turn that pressure into a more positive force rather than a panic-inducing one. Here are a few tips for eliminating deadline stress.
Make Sure Your Deadlines Are Realistic
Deadlines can be particularly troubling when you've got a false sense of how much time you need to complete a task. If you think a project is easy or you know how to do it, you're likely to procrastinate or work more slowly — and then all of the sudden you're up against a deadline. On the other hand, if your deadlines are chronically too short, you'll feel stressed from the moment the deadline is set, no matter how hard you work.
The solution is to try to get a more realistic sense of how much time is needed and plan accordingly:
Get a more accurate read on how long similar tasks take: Look to past projects or set up a time-tracking system with a tool like RescueTime — and then try to add a padding for any unknowns. (As a rule of thumb, Paul Wilson writes in Calm at Work that things generally take twice as long, cost twice as much, and bring half the rewards that you anticipate,)
See if you can negotiate a later deadline: If someone sets a deadline for you and it seems unreasonable or too tight, consider whether the deadline is flexible and if you can make a case for getting more time added. For example, "I've got X and Y and Z to do with this project, and I think it will realistically take this much time to accomplish — if nothing goes wrong. I'd rather do it right than rushed."
Negotiation training expert Dr Karrass writes:
Be sceptical of deadlines. Sometimes they are real and sometimes they can be negotiated.
Just thinking of deadlines as flexible and not set in stone could be a relief to you.
Think of each task or project as an unfamiliar one: The familiarity bias says when we're more familiar with the early steps of a project, we're more likely to delay starting it and, perhaps, underestimate how much time is needed to complete it. So think of each task as a new, unfamiliar one to make sure you're thinking of your given time appropriately.
Get More Control By Redefining Deadlines as Time Allocations
Some people work well under pressure and think of deadlines as the ultimate inspiration. For the rest of us, deadlines are threatening. The difference between these two groups? It may be all about how you perceive time and how much control over your time you think you have. In other words, our minds are causing these time pressures, rather than the clock.
Focus on how much time you have to work with: To take back control — and thus reduce the stress of a deadline — Wilson recommends translating a deadline into how much time you have to work with (your "time allocation") and then vary the time allocation a little so you are in control:
So, if the task has to be completed by the same time next week, instead of setting a deadline, you allocate a certain amount of time for the task. In this instance it would be seven days. Or, if you like big numbers, 168 hours. But what's more important than the number of hours is the fact that you can modify this allocation at your whim — allow yourself 144 hours, or 99 hours, or 12 hours.
See what you've done? While it is usually somebody else who sets deadlines, it is you who makes time allocations. So you're in charge of your own destiny.
While it's practical to have deadlines on your calendar, you can implement this mind hack by adding the time allocation rather than the due date beside each item on your task or project list. Keep a record of the hours you spend against this self-assigned time allocation.
Once you have a realistic deadline and know how much time you've allocated to your tasks or projects, you need a plan to tackle them. If you don't have a plan (or if you tend to procrastinate and ditch the plan), then of course that impending deadline is going to be stressful. Picture: Matthieu Plourde/Flickr.
Break a project down to its smallest steps and note how long each step takes to complete, writing them down on a spreadsheet or other tool. This will give you a list of your priorities and when you should start working on them, as well as a sense of organisation and purpose. It will also help you prioritise when everything seems important, such as when you've got multiple deadlines around the same time.
Remember, as with the ultimate deadline, it helps to have realistic estimates of how long each of these smaller tasks take and to think of the deadlines as flexible targets (as much as the project allows).
Troubleshoot Your Deadline Issues
If you've got a chronic deadline issue, lie back on our couch and tell us:
- Are you aiming for more perfection than needed? Maybe deadlines bother you because you're trying to do too much or more than necessary in the time you have allotted. Perhaps your boss would prefer a less-perfect but on-time result more. Find out the quality/performance objectives for every project you attempt. Or if you have self-assigned deadlines, relax. Set up your minimum and ideal expectations.
- Are you working as efficiently as you can? Maybe your colleagues or co-workers are using tools or shortcuts that help them work faster and keep those daunting deadlines from creeping up on them. Ask around or do a search to see if you could be using your time more efficiently.
- Are you procrastinating or getting distracted too often? First, make sure you've got realistic time expectations. Then, consider all/any of the many procrastination and productivity hacks we've featured here before, such as understanding why we procrastinate, getting motivated with the procrastination equation, and realising that just getting started is everything.
- Do you just hate thinking about/dealing with time? For some people, just thinking about time itself can be unnerving, if not stressful (I'm one of those people). If you thrive on being in the flow (in a seemingly timeless work trance), the clock is your enemy. For this, the best solution is to work your best hours: try to organise your work so you're doing your most productive tasks during your best hours and for the other 80 per cent of your time, deal with the easier tasks. Also, ditch the watch and clock-watching.
For all situations, if you start to worry when a deadline nears, take a deep breath. Relax and remember all the preparation you've done (or, if not, the skills you can rely on) and get to work. Focus on what you need to do and you may find you don't even need to give that deadline a second thought.
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