By Christine Song

How to Set and Keep Deadlines


Managing your time so you can finish what you start.

How many times have you set a deadline only to find you have to push it further out?

How many times have you realized at the last minute that an important deadline is...oops, tomorrow morning?

When it comes to deadlines, these are the most common problems: setting them and keeping them.

Learning how to set and keep deadlines takes practice, planning, and effort on your part - your goals and projects don’t just complete themselves on their own. Deadlines keep us honest and make sure that our goals move beyond the “imagination” stage into reality. We can’t live without them. 

Whether it’s the little deadline you set by scheduling an appointment, or the major deadline you need to hit for a big presentation, we want you to succeed. 

So instead of watching your deadlines slip by, learn how to set effective deadlines (so you can actually be successful) and honor the deadlines you set. Below we share tips on how to set realistic timelines, schedule check ins to ensure you make progress on your deadline, and how to manage emergencies and unexpected delays professionally.

The importance of deadlines

Since we all set deadlines every day, we should be good at it right? But unfortunately, deadlines are often moving targets. They’re new every time, because they involve new kinds of work, new people, new teams, or new goals. However, there are certain skills you can improve to help you consistently set and hit your deadlines.

Deadlines have a way of either bringing out the best in you (they motivate you) or the worst (procrastination takes over) and may bring up a range of feelings: 

  • Excitement at the prospect of completing a task or accomplishing a goal that you’ve worked so hard towards. 
  • Fear or nervousness at the thought of not meeting a deadline and the negative implications that follow.
  • Anger or shame recalling times when you have missed a deadline or never even started what you set out to do.
  • Frustration at not making progress, whether due to external or internal factors.

Our ability to keep a deadline speaks volumes about us, to ourselves and to others. At work, your ability to complete things on time almost always has an impact on other people -- either they can feel happy and relieved that you did great work on time, or they can feel frustrated and annoyed that you are late or the work was rushed and low quality.

And internally, you can either feel proud of your results or disappointed that you let yourself or other people down. 

While work can often seem like it’s all about the concrete results, it is important to consider the importance of the emotional side of things as well. The way you feel about yourself, and how your coworkers feel about you, will affect your ability to thrive and do amazing things.

How to set smart deadlines 

Pull out your planner, your favorite pen (or pencil, if you fear commitment), and project planning pad -- it’s time to get smart about setting achievable deadlines and doing the work to get it all done on time.

Be realistic. If you know you are going to have a busy month, don’t plan to also complete a major project that could just as well be done the next month. You know yourself. If you have struggled with overwhelming schedules before, don’t assume this time will be different and overcommit yourself.

It’s very important to look at your planner and see what kinds of commitments you have coming up, both big and small. We all have things we do every day, every week, and every month, on top of the extra goals and tasks we need to accomplish. Think realistically about how any additional work will need to fit in.

Always budget and allow for extra time too; it’s better to have more time and finish early than it is to miss a deadline. Plus, there are always last minute changes or unexpected delays, things outside of your control that have to be handled. Giving yourself extra time will keep the stress at bay and your deadline on track.

Set expectations. It often feels easier to meet deadlines when they are set by someone else, or when they hold us accountable to someone else. But when that’s not the case and you’re setting your own deadline, you can still set external expectations and use that as motivation. For example, if you want to email your colleague feedback by the end of the day or send a report to your manager by Tuesday, let them know in advance these are your intentions. Telling someone, anyone, that you have a deadline to finish something has the same effect as if they set the deadline for you. 

Break big deadlines down into small steps. Create a series of mini deadlines for yourself on your way to the bigger deadline -- this will make you more successful. Studies show that those given a weekly deadline, versus one big deadline or the option to set the deadline themselves, performed better. 

When you can clearly see a finish line (even if it’s not “the” finish line), it motivates you to keep going. Plus, your smaller deadlines are more concrete and closely connected to what you are working on right now, which helps them feel more achievable and realistic than a broad, far-away-feeling bigger deadline.

Set yourself up for success. Ask yourself if you have everything you need to be successful, including time, resources, tools, etc. You don’t want to set yourself up to fail. If you need time to gather everything you need, make sure that your deadlines take that into account. Your deadlines need to be realistic for you, in the real world.

How to keep deadlines 

Once you set your deadline, what can you do to keep it? The ideas below center around ways to stay engaged, connected, and motivated to meet a deadline.

Take all of your deadlines seriously and with a positive attitude. Instead of thinking of deadlines as soft or hard, ones that you “might” keep versus “will” keep, take them all seriously. If you set a deadline for yourself, commit to it. This mindset, along with seeing a deadline as a positive step in the right direction (and not something to resent), is a useful strategy to stay engaged and connected, especially helpful when you're struggling to get started.

Schedule check-ins. If you have a deadline that is one month from now, check in with yourself every week until then to make sure you’re on track. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when you’re heads-down working towards your goal -- without a check-in, you might forget an important element along the way. Likewise, if you’re not making steady progress on your goal, a weekly check-in can be a reality check -- and an opportunity to get back on track before it’s crunch time.

When you’re going to miss the mark, be prepared and be honest. Even the most organized and productive people miss their deadlines sometimes. Life is full of surprises and problems that can knock you off track. 

In these instances, get on top of the situation as soon as you can. Extending your deadline is better than not completing it at all. Often, partial completion is still useful to the people relying on you, especially if they know in advance that they won’t be getting everything they expected on time.

As soon as you see the schedule slipping or you realize a problem will be holding up your ability to deliver on time, send everyone who will be affected an update with this information. Not only that, though, tell them what you plan to do to get things on track and when they will be able to expect deliverables from you.

The less defensive you are, and the more focused on getting people the results they need as close as possible to the expected date, the better your news will be received. Try to imagine all the questions these people will have, so you can proactively provide the answers in your update.