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Setting Deadlines Can Push You to Work Harder, but Not Smarter

Setting Deadlines Can Push You to Work Harder, but Not Smarter

When you start your workday, you may welcome the tasks that arise to fill your time. Work comes to you with no rhyme or reason, but you do it. You tackle things as they come, and you turn everything in by the deadline.

It may seem that you’re successful because you turn in your work on time. The problem is, you don’t know how to effectively plan for a day’s work.

Most people live and die by deadlines

Time is an important factor to consider when you’re completing tasks. Many of us chase deadlines or knock out the easiest tasks first to feel a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes, we spend too long on some tasks, and scramble to do everything else.

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    You may have 10 working hours in a given day, and it’s your job to do as much work as possible in that time. It’s easy to work all day and accomplish very little.

    You have to be intentional about priorities. If you only worry about filling time slots and meeting deadlines, you may neglect more important, high-value tasks.

    But living by deadlines gets you into trouble

    Humans are terrible at guessing how long it takes to complete projects. Guessing is even more challenging when we are developing something new. We’re not machines, and our day-to-day outputs don’t tend to fit into neat algorithms. When we estimate completion date on a project, we don’t take into account the non-project related work that creeps into our schedules. Those emails, meetings, and team member commitments that crop up at the last minute cost time.

    We often associate dates and days with certain emotions. For example, do you find yourself as productive on Friday afternoon as you are on Tuesday? Relative estimation of when you’ll complete a task doesn’t take into consideration how feelings affect work.

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    To top it off, you can give several teams the same task, and they’ll all complete them in a slightly different time frame. Their velocity on work turnaround, calculated in points, will vary along with their time frame. Setting arbitrary times for finishing work makes it impossible to use velocity as a selling point in your team’s effectiveness unless your team performs significantly better than your competitors.

    How to make guesses more accurate

    Instead of relying on deadlines and dates to stay productive, you can take a more objective approach. The management technique known as scrum can help you accomplish this. In the book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, the Scrum technique allows you to produce better estimates for planning timelines by using a system of points instead of units of time.

    When you’re working to solve complex problems, there are usually several teams involved. It’s impossible to guess how long it will take to complete a project on your own or communicate your team’s needs to other groups. Your role in a project may require little effort, but the teams around you may have to expend considerable effort for their part. You need the input of every team involved to arrive at a reasonable estimation.

    Use story points

    The most productive teams have switched from setting deadlines to deciding how long tasks will take based on a process known as scrum or agile estimation. They use story points (the input of various teams involved) to understand the relative difficulty of each task.[1]

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    Workers rate the degree of difficulty using a Fibonacci-sequence: 0, 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20. This abstraction pushes the team to make tougher decisions around the difficulty of work.

    They assign numeric value to their respective portion, and play “planning poker.” In planning poker, workers hold up a number that they think represents the level of difficulty for that project.

    Make sure everyone’s on the same page

    When all parties agree about the numbers in planning poker, they know that they are all on the same page about the timeline. If the numbers differ, the teams must discuss how everyone reached their numbers.

    Sometimes, we have no idea what obstacles other teams face. This method opens a dialogue about what it will take to actualize a project. Differing opinions in the difficulty of a project can address whether everyone is working on the same scale.

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    Don’t complicate the points

    It’s best to set an upper limit of 20 story points when you are trying to make a project less complicated. Anything greater than that needs to be broken into smaller attainable steps. Breaking tasks down into smaller steps keeps teams from becoming overwhelmed.

    Hindsight is 20/20

    When you’re trying to give an accurate estimation for how long a project will take, don’t forget to think about past experience. If you’ve done similar jobs, consider how long they took to complete and what pitfalls you experienced. Think about the number of story points that particular aspects cost.

    The more data you can refer back to, the closer you’ll be to landing an accurate estimate. Besides, you may be able to improve on previous methods so that you can complete your work more efficiently.

    Stop being a slave for deadline

    Setting a deadline based on how long you think the task will take can leave you scrambling or turning in substandard work. There’s no reason for you to work harder when you could be working smarter.

    By thinking about your work in the abstract story points system instead of time, you’ll be able to communicate your needs and understand the needs of others much more clearly. You’ll know when you need to break tasks into smaller steps, and you’ll have a more efficient way of thinking about past experiences with similar projects.

    To learn more about effectively planning your next project, read Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.

    Reference

    More by this author

    Leon Ho

    Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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    Last Updated on October 22, 2020

    How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

    How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

    Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed, and exhausted. Therefore, if you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, it’s time to do something about it.

    Here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm, leaving you calmer, in control, and a lot less stressed at work.

    1. Write Everything Down to Offload Your Mind

    The first thing you can do when work feels overwhelming is to write everything down that is on your mind.

    Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s occupying your thoughts[1].

    For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind, write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind.”

    The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will help you stop feeling overwhelmed at work. Writing things down can really change your life.

    2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

    Once you have emptied your head, go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

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    As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.

    Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability. You can learn how to create a more meaningful to-do list here.

    3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

    Here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago to help when work feels overwhelming. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and we humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take[2]:

    When feeling overwhelmed at work, use Parkinson's Law.

      This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad. It’s more wishful thinking than bad judgment.

      We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage when we’re feeling overwhelmed at work. If you have estimated that to write five important emails will take ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

      Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is that you put yourself under a little time pressure, and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

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      When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time, so it plays tricks on us, and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our team members to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.

      Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening, and we get more focused and more work done. This will help when work feels overwhelming.

      4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

      Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos to avoid getting overwhelmed at work. Schedule time for each task, especially high priority tasks, while also grouping together similar tasks. This will help relieve stress and anxiety in your daily work life.

      For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

      Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done, and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer, and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

      5. Make Decisions

      For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one[3]. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

      If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend, or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.

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      If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss or a colleague and get advice.

      Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away and will only make you feel more overwhelmed at work. You need to make a decision to deal with it, and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved.

      I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed, and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend about the problem.

      He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem, and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I pay a smaller amount for a couple of months.

      This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

      The first was: don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second: there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.

      6. Take Some Form of Action

      Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we are feeling overwhelmed at work (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

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      The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

      It also means that, rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible, and you can make decisions about what to do about them.

      Often, it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be that you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

      When work feels overwhelming, it’s not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work. It can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

      The Bottom Line

      It’s easy to feel like you have too much on your plate, but there are things you do to make it more manageable. 

      Make a decision, even if it’s just talking to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a resolution.

      When you follow these strategies, you can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.

      More Tips for Reducing Work Stress

      Featured photo credit: Josefa nDiaz via unsplash.com

      Reference

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