How do you approach a pressing deadline?
In pretty much all aspects of life, deadlines are necessary evils. Time constraints are rarely fun, but they do push us to finish work and, in lots of instances, put out better work.
There’s even an explanation for this: The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that “a person’s performance increases as their arousal increases, but only up to a point, after which performance starts to suffer as the person becomes overwhelmed or distracted.”
In simpler terms, deadlines can push (and inspire) us to do some incredible things, but the stress that accompanies the time constraint may also take a toll.
If you find it difficult to focus on deadline, good news! You’re normal. And, luckily, there are many ways you can make getting to the finish line a little easier while still producing amazing work.
Set the mood for productivity
Those who often deal with deadlines know that it takes the right state of mind to really commit to getting a chunk of work done.
It’s easy to multi-task or procrastinate (or both!) anytime, but especially so when you're stressed, so the best way to focus on a deadline is to create the right conditions for productivity.
For each individual, the “right conditions” are different. For some, it’s a quiet room with no distractions. For others, it’s higher stakes or some form of accountability (like working around other people). It takes some trial and error to figure out what this is for you, but once you do, you’ll have an easier time replicating it.
Setting the mood for a deadline is important because it’ll put you in the necessary mindset to reach your goal. Whether it’s finishing a high volume of tedious tasks or assembling a brand new concept, you’ll want to tailor your working conditions to your objective. If it’s making a hot cup of tea to signal your brain it’s time to work, or setting a timer, or opening a window to make the room more comfortable, make sure to take the necessary steps to set yourself up for success.
Create a plan for focus
Deadlines are often complex and encompass lots of moving parts. That’s usually what makes them stressful (and even maybe a little thrilling).
Creating a plan is an obvious piece of advice. But when you’re feeling overwhelmed, even a plan can become somewhat of a complicated endeavor.
Instead of writing out your objectives in a traditional to-do list, create a plan that will walk you through the completion of your project. This may include a timeline, breaking up the project into more manageable pieces, and even identifying how you can delegate certain tasks.
If the project is complex, meet it with a plan that can encompass all of the necessary complexity.
Creating a dashboard of bigger deadlines may help you better sort out all of the finer details, and defining the overall goal is a good way to make sure you don’t leave any part of your project unfinished. Doing so makes an action plan a lot easier to execute confidently, so you don’t have to worry at the last minute whether you’ve covered all of your bases.
Clear the decks
Writer and psychologist Alice Boyes has a particular method for tasks that she’s long put-off: “clear the decks.” Simply put, this is dedicating a chunk of time – in her case, a whole day – to an assignment so that you can accomplish a significant amount of work. There is no multi-tasking or finishing other to-do lists.
Clearing the decks means you commit all of your energy to the one job.
This method, Boyes writes, is particularly useful for tasks that you’re likely to deem as “important” but also maybe a little difficult, unfamiliar, or unpredictable. If you have a deadline on a project where you may run into hiccups, dedicate the time early so you’re not rushing in the end. This thought-out time to focus will leave you more prepared and less stressed as you approach your deadline.
While not always ideal for rushed deadlines, you’ll likely find that playing the long game to be especially helpful. Some deadlines are bigger than others and require more work. To ensure that you’re totally committed to it, mark off some time on your calendar so that you can clear the decks, commit to some deep focus work, and finish a job on a strong note.
Try going offline
We live in a world full of distractions. Social media, important emails, and news notifications are all fighting for our attention nearly all of the time – which can make focusing on a deadline difficult. After all, data shows that it takes an estimated 23 minutes to fully recover from a distraction. That’s a lot of lost time if you’re sidetracked by a handful of emails and phone notifications over the course of a day.
Sometimes, especially when you’re on deadline, it’s not enough to block out a chunk of time or adequately prepare. Sometimes you have to physically remove the things that are likely to keep you from making progress.
A few ways you can “disconnect” while still getting work done include:
- Remove your phone from reach. It’s not enough to turn the notifications off when we’re tempted to scroll anytime we hit a stopping point. You'd be amazed at how making your phone a little harder to get to de-incentives your unnecessary distraction.
- Work offline. Try working with as little access to the internet as possible. You won’t be tempted to check emails or switch tasks. You can either turn wi-fi off on your computer, or try working at a coffee shop that doesn't have free internet.
- Make time for deep thinking. A lot of deadlines require a lot of thought, brainstorming, or planning. Making some time for this without distraction can be an important part of reaching your goal. Try sitting outside with a notebook or taking a walk to jumpstart your creativity.
When in doubt, incentivize yourself
Even for the most organized people who have a plan and a direction, some deadlines can be downright daunting. No matter how prepared you are or how much you tell yourself you’re almost to the finish line, motivation just seems to lack. It happens to the best of us, so don’t feel bad if you’re in this situation.
In these instances, set a reward for yourself. It doesn’t have to be anything major, but a little incentive to get to your deadline can give you enough motivation to get through it. A walk around the park, an afternoon coffee, or weekend shopping trip with friends might be the motivation you need.