When a deadline isn’t met, it is often because of a breakdown in one or more of these four areas:
- Time management
- Impulse control
Most people underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete a task. They forget to include extraneous time into their estimations for interruptions, recovery time to regain focus after an interruption, restroom and lunch breaks, their mind wandering, etc.
To get a more realistic idea of how long it takes you to do something, start timing your processes throughout the course of a day. How often does a coworker interrupt your work and for how long? How long does it usually take you to recover from this disturbance? Does your mind tend to wander at some hours of the day more often than at other times? How long is your average lunch break? When do you typically use the restroom? After two or three weeks of recording your processes, you should have a more accurate understanding of how long it takes you to do your work (and your not-work).
In the meantime, I recommend doubling your time estimations for completing a task. If you think something will take you 10 minutes, say it will take you 20 minutes. If you think something will take you a day, say it will take you two.
Also, remember that your coworkers and clients are also underestimating the length of time it will take them to complete work. If you are waiting on materials from a coworker, be sure to pad their time estimations when it relates to your deadlines and expectations.
Whether it’s because you don’t want to do the work (the task you need to finish now is less desirable than another project further down on your to-do list) or you can’t do the work (such as the building is on fire and getting out of the building is in your best interest), incompatible priorities are often the cause of missing deadlines. When I was a teacher, students would prioritize going to soccer practice or hanging out with friends or watching television over completing their homework. Not finishing their homework on time would result in a lower grade, but in the working world it can mean losing a job, not getting a promotion, missing out on a bonus, having an upset client, receiving complaints, and canceled contracts.
A few minutes each morning spent planning out your work day can help you to keep the most important work on your schedule during your most productive times of the day. Even if you don’t follow your schedule perfectly, you’ll be mindful and aware of exactly what you need to do.
The immediate gratification gained from something currently in front of you (a link to a funny site, a conversation your coworkers are having about their upcoming vacations, beating a level on Angry Birds) can easily distract you from working toward important deadlines. Not having the ability to ignore these temptations can keep you from finishing deadlines on time or achieving larger, more beneficial goals.
Simply acknowledging that you are not controlling your impulses will often be enough to get you back on track with your work. If saying to yourself, “I’m wasting time,” isn’t enough to curb your behavior, take more proactive steps. Hide icons, turn off devices, wear earplugs, or do whatever it is you need to do to keep the distractions from luring you away from your work.
Providing regular updates about your work and properly managing the expectations of the person waiting on your work can go a long way toward helping you meet deadlines. First, you’ll be able to prepare the person well in advance if you are going to miss the deadline so he or she can make necessary adjustments. Second, you may find the person can help you to better meet your deadline.
Regular communication helps you to better set your priorities, keep you accountable, learn important information and skills related to the project, and manage your time. If you’re not going to finish a project on deadline, being radio silent is a sure way to upset the person who is expecting your work.
Based on the length of the project, regular communication might be hourly, daily, or every few days. You’ll need to make this determination based on the type of work you do and the person or people associated with the work. Discuss expectations for regular communication at the beginning of the project so everyone will be comfortable with the frequency of interactions. Also, the minute you know there will be a delay with meeting a deadline, share this with the appropriate person or people.