You have a tight deadline and the clock is ticking. What do you do?
With a big goal or project, it’s all about maintaining your endurance and treating it like a marathon. But when it comes to a short deadline, it’s all about jumpstarting your productivity to sprint across the finish line.
Luckily, you don’t need superhuman energy or strength to help you win. First, the adrenaline from a tight deadline can keep you energized, and the strategies and systems you put in place will ensure a quick turn around--with great results.
If tight deadlines make you anxious, try reframing them. A looming deadline might seem stressful at first, but it could be a blessing in disguise. Here are some of the ways that shorter deadlines can help benefit you:
Stop procrastination: A firm deadline can help you stop procrastinating and force you to finally buckle down.
Clear priorities: Sometimes we succumb to procrastination because we have no idea what our true priorities are, or we view every single task as a priority. Tight deadlines require us to narrow our focus because there is a clear and defined time that we need to “put our pencils down” and hand in our work. This helps us trim the fat from our to-do lists. Anything that doesn’t have to do with our deadline can be pushed to the side.
Finish line in sight: When you have a tight deadline, you’ll be more likely to accomplish the task because there’s a finish line in sight. That’s why some people excel under pressure. They use deadlines as extrinsic motivation to keep them going until they cross the finish line.
Build teamwork: Tight deadlines allow us to learn how to work effectively as a team. From this experience, you’ll gain essential skills in communicating and delegating.
Success: After working so hard to meet your deadline, you’ll feel a huge sense of pride and accomplishment. You can use this as a positive reminder that goals are within your reach, while also using the momentum to accomplish other tasks.
Have systems in place
When it comes to working under tight deadlines, make sure to have systems and tools already in place so that you can hit the ground running. Here’s a checklist to help get you started:
Templates: Have templates ready to go for presentations, emails, reports, etc. so that you don’t have to start from scratch when you have a short deadline.
Away messages: Incorporate away messages during busy times so that you’re not distracted by emails or responsible for answering messages that aren’t time sensitive.
Go offline: Avoid distractions by disabling notifications, putting your phone on airplane mode, signing out of social media accounts, and putting “away” messages on chat.
Priority List: Use the Eisenhower Matrix to help you rank your tasks and make them as “important” or “urgent.” We’ll cover this more below.
Go-to meals: Have a plan for your meals so that you don’t have to waste time cooking or prepping when you have a time sensitive deadline to meet. Maybe this means having a go-to take out place for meals or having snacks on hand to keep you energized throughout the day.
Make sure that your trusty office supplies and tools are on hand to help you win your day.
How to prioritize
Project deadlines: If your deadline is centered around a project, then break down your project into micro tasks to help you ensure a fast turn around.
For example, let’s say it’s 10 AM and you have to do a presentation by 5 PM. Make a list of all the tasks that you need to accomplish by that deadline and then schedule them.
Your initial list might look something like this:
- Book conference room for presentation
- Do research
- Reach out to coworker for data
- Design presentation
- Circulate presentation for comments and edits
- Make an outline
- Make talking points
- Practice presentation
Next, organize and schedule your tasks. Which one should you focus on first? If you’re not sure, then try starting with the end. The task “practice presentation” will be the last thing you do. So what needs to come before that? Maybe “design presentation” should be scheduled for later in the day because you need to create the content first before putting in the finishing touches. Keep working in reverse until you have all of your tasks organized.
Competing deadlines: Let’s say you’re juggling multiple deadlines--you need to pick up your kids from school but you also have to submit a report, as well as finish other work assignments. How do you know which tasks to prioritize?
First things first, make a list in order to truly capture the extent of your workload. Be honest. Do you really need to shoot off those emails today? Or can they wait until tomorrow? Do you really need to attend that meeting? Or can you reschedule it for tomorrow?
If you’re having trouble ranking your priorities, then go through your list and mark an “I” next to Important tasks or “U” next to Urgent tasks. This is a take on the Eisenhower Matrix, and allows you to quickly determine your true priorities.
Here’s why it’s important to make the distinction between urgent and important: tasks that are marked “urgent” are typically tasks that are important for other people in your life, while “important tasks” are tasks that are important and relevant for you.
Take a hard look at your list and see which of these tasks cater to someone else’s needs. See if you can either delegate those tasks or shift them to a different day.
If you work in an office, then you might say that all of your tasks are for other people. After all, our managers and higher-ups set deadlines, not us. How do we figure out what’s important and urgent in this scenario?
You can still mark tasks as “important” or “urgent.” If everything seems important, then rank them by time sensitivity and by seniority. For instance, you might want to prioritize tasks assigned by your boss while de-prioritizing tasks given by a peer. Communication is always key, so make sure to always check-in with your managers and team to see what is truly important.
The next time you’re racing against the clock, give these strategies a try. Remember to keep your eye on the prize and you’ll be crossing that finish line in no time.