How to set realistic deadlines at work and meet them

2pm Thursday: “No problem, I’ll have that to you by close of play tomorrow.”

2pm Friday: “I’m just waiting on some bits from finance, so might not be able to get that to you until Monday.”

4pm Monday: “So sorry, I got pulled into something urgent this morning and that’s become the afternoon’s priority – I’ll definitely have it for you tomorrow.”

11am Tuesday: “Here’s what I’ve put together so far – take a look through that, let me know if that’s enough to start with and I’ll do my best to get you the rest this week.”

Ever had a similar conversation?

Whether you’re on the receiving end or it’s you failing to meet your own deadlines, both are equally frustrating. Our innate need to please and impress people often means we set unrealistic deadlines – when in actual fact we would garner far more respect if we were up front and honest about the time it takes to complete a task. The Muse suggests that being seen as dependable while also being able to ask for help when you need it means people will respect you more at work.

Learn to set deadlines you can actually meet

You will meet every deadline on time if you properly consider the (realistic) time it will take you to complete a task.

Consider the following aspects:

  • Do I have any other immediate priorities that need to be dealt with first?
  • Will I be relying on anyone else to complete the task? (I.e. stats from an analyst, budget information from finance, approval from senior management) How long will it take those people to provide what I need?
  • Can anyone else on your team help or can they pick up other jobs to allow you to concentrate on this task?
  • Have I communicated to everyone involved what steps I will need to take to complete the task?
  • Knowing my team/manager/line of work, how likely is it that I will be asked to complete other, unplanned tasks at the same time?
  • Have I been overly ambitious in the past about setting myself a deadline? What did I learn from this?

Once you’ve asked yourself these questions and considered all the factors that could potentially delay your task, you’ll be better placed to provide an estimate for the deadline.

If the deadline is for a larger project, set yourself the goal of revisiting the timelines once a week and updating all relevant parties if anything has shifted.

How to meet them

Organisation is pretty much the be all and end all of ensuring you meet a work deadline. If you don’t plan ahead, you’re guaranteed to find it harder to complete your tasks. Make a list of all the steps you must take and put them in the order you must take them. Sounds obvious, but how often do you actually do it?

Don’t procrastinate! Tim Urban says that the reason we procrastinate is due to our desire to live and get pleasure from our current situation – as represented by the ‘Instant Gratification Monkey’ here. He points out that our need for instant gratification can often overtake the rational part of our brains, resulting in the ‘Panic Monster’.

You won’t look any less impressive if you ask for help. If you realise fairly soon into the task that you’re not going to be able to meet the deadline, communicate this and prove that you’re committed to completing the task on time but think it would be more realistic if you had support from someone else. Go as far as to plan what you would delegate out and what you would complete yourself – your manager might not be aware of the number of steps required to finish the task so give them as much visibility as possible.

If you do miss a deadline that you have either set yourself or agreed to meet, avoid giving excuses and instead offer the best solution you can. When will you definitely be able to deliver? What help could you receive that would speed up the process? What have you learnt that you will take on board for next time?

If you are constantly struggling to meet deadlines, maybe you need tips on working smarter!

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Don’t estimate how long it will take you to complete a task until you’ve considered all the steps that need to be taken and any external factors that could compromise the deadline.

Once you’ve done this, remember these three tips:

  1. Get organised – plan ahead and create a step by step plan
  2. Avoid procrastinating – being organised from the get go should help this but try and remove any other distractions that might get in your way
  3. Ask for help if the deadline can’t be changed – unless you’re a superhero you can’t be expected to complete the impossible.

At all times, absolute transparency with all stakeholders is crucial.

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