A piece of advice that I have heard many times over is to set deadlines with yourself. In other words, when you are working on a task, you then agree on a deadline that you are trying to keep. This in turn should help you to finish the task in time.
Let me ask you this, however: How many times you have set these kinds of deadlines only to realize that you weren’t able to keep them? Or, how many times have you postponed or changed that very deadline till a later date since you realized you can’t get the task done because the deadline was unrealistic? I don’t know about you, but this has happened to me many times and I have come to the conclusion that negotiating and setting deadlines just with yourself is doomed to fail.
The problem is that it’s so easy change and postpone the deadlines rather than trying your hardest to get the work done within the defined boundaries. If this is the case, what is actually causing us to neglect those deadlines we set this way?
You are not feeling the pressure
The answer to this question is simple: you keep the deadlines to yourself and no one else knows about them.
The problem with this approach is that it’s easy to make changes to the original plan since you are the only person to know about it. Without any external feedback or pressure toward yourself, making those changes is very effortless. Unfortunately, this is just cheating yourself and that can lead to unnecessary procrastination, which in turn makes things more difficult for yourself and accomplishing a task becomes harder and harder.
This is too bad, since the noble idea of a deadline is now turned upside down: Rather than setting the boundaries to your work and getting them done in a timely manner, the task keeps hanging on your task list unnecessarily.
So you think that others are criticizing you?
When I consider the situations when I have set the deadlines with myself (which I wasn’t then able to keep), I can think of at least three core reasons for doing so:
- I didn’t want to feel external pressure
- I wasn’t sure if I was able to finish the task in time
- I felt that others could criticize me if I didn’t deliver the task within the set boundaries
First, announcing a deadline publicly makes you more exposed to external pressure. In other words, other people expect that you will fulfill the promise of getting something done before the deadline. If this pressure is just too much to handle, you try to avoid it.
Secondly, you may feel unconfident about your own capabilities of delivering a task within a timeframe. This is especially true if you really don’t know the task well or that you don’t have the necessary skills to perform it.
Thirdly, no one wants to be criticized or yelled at if the work isn’t delivered on time. Keeping the deadline to yourself is easier, since you are the only one who knows about it.
Stretching your comfort zone
In order to get rid of the inefficiencies of internally-negotiated deadlines, you should just do the opposite: be open about them and announce the deadlines to the world. Only in that way can you expect better results, and it makes you try harder to deliver the tasks on time. Even though this may seem scary to some, you should do it anyway. That’s the only way of overcoming the continuous postponing and cheating on yourself with deadlines, which you are not going to meet.
Before you announce anything to the world, understand that you have less time than you think. When you realize this, it helps you to set more realistic deadlines, thus diminishing the fears that you have towards setting the public timeframes. Also, when you are realistic about your own skills and understand what the task is really all about, and then giving more accurate schedules becomes easier.
Deadlines the right way
1. Analyze your situation thoroughly. Before setting the deadlines, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the actual amount of time that I have?
- How much work do I really have to do?
- What is my skillset related to the task and the deadline?
Be very realistic with the answers, since this lays the foundation for good solid deadlines. If you have any doubts about your own skills, about the task, or the time available, it’s time to be more conservative on what you promise.
2. Less is more. Decide the goal you want to reach, but be aware of promising too much. As mentioned, you have less time on your hands than you think and time literally flies when you get down into your work.
Taking a slightly more conservative approach is better than trying to promise too much. Getting less work done in this case is better than explaining later why you weren’t able to get everything done that you so boldly promised to do.
3. Take external factors into account. Understand that there are factors which decrease the amount of time you have for the task and for meeting the deadline.
For instance, if you promised to do a task for your boss within five days, but you are travelling on Monday and you have meetings all Tuesday, all of a sudden you have only three days to do the task. Take these external causes into account when deciding on the public deadline for your work.
4. Be honest with yourself (and others). This point is absolutely crucial.
For instance, when I was at my day job and I was assigned a task which I wasn’t skilled to do, I let my boss or project manager know about it. This way, I wasn’t setting unrealistic expectations and everyone knew what the real situation was.
5. Announce the deadline to the world. Once you have all the background work done, it’s time to publicly announce your deadline. This makes you really try to meet the deadline and postponing it becomes harder and harder.
When you announce your schedule, make yourself accountable—for instance, towards to your blog’s visitors, e-mail list subscribers, your friends, your spouse, your colleagues and your boss, your mastermind group, or your coach.
6. Learn from failure. If you still happen to miss a deadline, analyze why it happened. Just calmly figure out the reasons that lead to missing it and use that experience the next time when you set another deadline.
There are times when keeping a deadline to yourself is justified, but if you have an important task that you want to get done, announcing the deadline to the world is a better option (especially if this task takes you closer to your big goals). For instance, I’m writing a productivity book right now and I have already announced to my e-mail subscribers (and anyone who I talk with), that this book is going to be published on October 22nd, 2013.
This way, I will make sure to really meet the deadline and get everything done before that date.
Over to you: How do you create effective deadlines?