Four reasons you may be missing deadlines and how to fix these problems

When a deadline isn’t met, it is often because of a breakdown in one or more of these four areas:

  • Time management
  • Prioritizing
  • Impulse control
  • Communication

Time management

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.

Impulse control

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.

7 Comments for “Four reasons you may be missing deadlines and how to fix these problems”

  1. posted by Shalin on

    Such important stuff – great post! I’ve often thought that the biggest impediments to achieving greater success for me has been focusing and time management. If I could address those – I could really get a lot done…

    Here’s a truly pragmatic and forthright talk by Prof. Randy Pausch (of “The Last Lecture” fame) on time management – truly worth sitting down and watching the whole thing… 🙂

    Randy Pausch Lecture: Time Management

    Final comment here – one reason I find that I may procrastinate on a task is that I am worried about being critiqued during the task. This is something beyond being interrupted, but it is also something that can be managed well.


  2. posted by Karen Newbie on

    This is wonderfully helpful in putting into words some of the intangible things that trip us up. Thank you for this.

  3. posted by Another Deb on

    Angry Birds reduced my Christmas vacation by about three days this year. I got my first iPod as a gift and that was the “Top App” on lots of lists. Not a good idea. Loads of fun, even a physics lesson with the launching birds, but I could have been learning how to use that device more productively.

    Time management has been a challenge when there was only television and Nancy Drew books to distract me. Now, it’s a constant stressor. I have found a few things to help: Don’t sit down. If I need to get things done at home, I try to stay afoot for two hours before taking a break.

  4. posted by Christina on

    “The immediate gratification gained from something currently in front of you…can easily distract you from working toward important deadlines”

    This is a great kick in the pants! I came to this website for some light reading, and to avoid finishing a paper that’s due tomorrow. Silly deadlines! Off to work…

  5. posted by Janet on

    It’s really all about what you call ‘impulse control’. It used to be called ‘self-control’ but that sounds so repressive these days, doesn’t it?

    Without self-control, not only aren’t deadlines met, but nothing of substance gets done. We can have the best technology in the world, the latest, greatest status toy of the month and if it is used to advance in a game of Angry Birds, well, we may as well clear our desks and go back to legal pads and No. 2 pencils.

    And good luck cultivating some self-control if you willingly immerse yourself in the sea of immediate gratification on a minute by minute basis by texting, tweeting, emailing, etc. etc. etc. If you are doing those things you are not doing what you’re supposed to be doing and that is going to cost you -it’s called an ‘opportunity cost’ in accounting. And the cost is missed deadlines.

    It’s all about the self-control.

  6. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    I have read a lot on time management and one of the best things I read was that you cannot manage time, it is what it is. What you can manage is YOU. Instead of TIME management, we really need SELF management.
    Thanks for the post!

  7. posted by AG on

    Honestly Erin,

    The world we be a much better and more fun place if and only if 80% of adults focused on enhancing the following skills:

    1) Communication
    2) Prioritization
    3) Time Management
    4) Impulse Control

    Relationships, goal achievement, productivity, teamwork, and one’s self-esteem and reputation would automatically benefit.


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