One of my favourite sayings has always been: "If you want something done, give it to a busy person." It's no big secret that people who keep busy have strategies for prioritising and managing all the things they need to do. Those strategies, while seldom made explicit, usually revolve around one main concept: Deadlines.
Deadlines provide structure. They create accountability and help prevent negative consequences. Some people love them, some people hate them, but those who embrace them are usually successful.
To write this column, I thought about my own strategies for managing deadlines, and then talked with my colleagues and friends who are productive and successful to see how similar their strategies were to mine, and each other’s. The tips overlapped tremendously.
So, here are five top tips on how organised people manage their deadlines and stay on top of their game.
1. Always pad your deadline
Maybe you thought the number one rule of deadlines was to give yourself reasonable deadlines. That's sound advice, but really, more important than that is this gem: Always pad your deadline!
There are always two deadlines – the padded deadline you assign, and the "drop-deadline." The drop-deadline, also known as the "or else" date, is the absolute last day and time at which something can happen. It's almost always the deadline someone else gives you. An example of a drop-deadline is the tax filing deadline that your government sets. Another is the application deadline for university.
The padded deadline, on the other hand, is your self-imposed deadline. Padding a deadline means you set the deadline slightly earlier than the drop-deadline to leave a little wiggle room for things to go wrong. Always pad your own deadlines, and always pad the deadlines you assign to others. Never plan to get something in just under the wire (that's not really a "plan," is it?). Rather, plan for contingencies, like sick days, getting stuck on a stalled train, an email outage, a postal strike, or other parties simply changing their minds about what they want and when they want it.
2. Make your deadlines visible
Deadlines need to be where you can see them. As with to-do lists and goals, the more you see your deadlines, the less likely you are to forget about them. Printed wall calendars work brilliantly. If you use a paper notebook, write your deadlines on a single-page calendar (you can print one from the Internet), fold it in half, and use it as your bookmark. If you're a paperless notes kind of person, set your deadlines in an application that you use daily, whether it's Outlook, Google Calendar, Excel, or something else. You might even use a desktop widget calendar, depending on how many impending deadlines you need to manage.
One of the benefits of putting your deadlines in an app is that it makes them easy to share. With a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a screen, you can remind your colleagues or partners of looming deadlines.
3. Know your work cycles
How you make your deadlines visible largely depends on your work cycles, meaning whether you tend to have daily, weekly, or monthly deadlines. For example, I used to work on a quarterly magazine, so I always had three calendars showing the next three months pinned to my corkboard. When it was September, I could see the most important upcoming deadlines, even though they wouldn't arrive until November. I also had a year calendar showing important deadlines that were even further away, but I kept that calendar digital because I didn't need to see it every day. Highly productive people balance the deadlines they need to be able to access with the deadlines they need to see. Seeing too many deadlines becomes overwhelming. Seeing the necessary deadlines for the most important upcoming projects keeps you on task.
4. Use double reminders
When a deadline is far away but very important, use a double reminder. In other words, set two alarms or notifications to remind you a few days ahead of time that the deadline is near. This trick is especially important for deadlines that fall outside your typical work scope – the kinds of things you're likely to forget. If I have to present a talk (something I do rarely) six weeks on Thursday, I'll set a reminder in my calendar for six weeks on Monday so that at the beginning of the appointed week, I remember that the event is coming and that I need to prepare.
5. Meet your deadlines consistently
"Meet your deadlines consistently" is one of those things that's easier said than done. But if you understand that it affects your value in the workplace, well, that alone can be quite motivating.
Consistently meeting deadlines can increase your value as an employee, team member, or partner. Think about how you view people who consistently meet deadlines. They're reliable, have a strong work ethic, and are seen as team players. Meeting deadlines is rarely about getting work done solely for yourself. It's almost always about completing one link in a chain, and where there's a chain, there are other people who can't meet their own deadlines until you've met yours. If you're not on time, they can't be on time either.
So many people don't meet deadlines consistently, that those who do typically stand out. If you meet your deadlines for several months in a row, people will notice, and it will change how they see you and how much trust they're willing to put in you.
And as the saying goes – "If you want something done, give it to a busy person" – the more you meet your deadlines, the more likely you are to continue meeting deadlines. It's cyclical and reinforcing behaviour.
Do or do not... there is no “try” with deadlines
While all these tips about deadlines work for most people, always do whatever makes the most sense for you, your work, and your habits. For example, some people simply do not abide by padded deadlines. They need the date written on the calendar to be the drop-deadline, and whatever padding needs to occur takes place in their head instead. And that's fine.
But when your habits are impeding your own productivity and success, try to recognise this and make a change. Very simple reminder or notification systems in the apps you already use – from Outlook to Gmail to Basecamp – can go a long way to helping you create better habits. So develop a calendar, use app features that are already at your fingertips, and set some deadlines (with wiggle room built in). You'll be glad you did.