Careers advice

5 tips for meeting deadlines without feeling overwhelmed

Let’s master this important skill.

What you’ll learn:

  • How to meet your work deadlines
  • What to do if you miss a deadline

Deadlines are one of the facts of working life, but no matter how familiar we become with them, they still have the ability to unnerve and wrong foot us.

As well as being an important skill to master in your day-to-day job, the ability to meet deadlines is something that often comes up in job interviews, so it’s a good idea to have a failsafe strategy up your sleeve that you can refer to. 

So, how do you make sure you always meet your deadlines, without stressing yourself out in the process? Here are our tips.

How to meet your work deadlines

1. Know your deadline

This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s very hard to meet a deadline without knowing what it is, and you’d be amazed at how often this happens. Whether you're directing a project, or following someone else’s lead, it’s important that you have a defined deadline to work to, and that this deadline is set from the start. This is important even if there isn’t a big time pressure on this piece of work, because you can guarantee that if you don’t have a deadline, the work will get pushed to the back burner when something more pressing comes along.

As well as knowing that deadline yourself, you need to make sure it’s effectively communicated to the rest of the team, so that everyone is on the same page from the start.

It's important to communicate a firm deadline from the start.

2. Build in some buffer

When setting, or being informed of, your timeframes, you might want to set yourself a soft deadline that falls a little ahead of the hard one. The size of this buffer will depend on the scale of the project itself, but the idea is that, by setting yourself this earlier deadline, you’ll ensure that you have some time set aside if things go wrong.

However, if you’re going to use this approach, it’s important not to go too far and set an earlier soft deadline that stresses you out by putting extra pressure on you.

3. Set milestones

This is important for any project, but particularly those which will be going on for an extended period of time. There are a number of reasons why setting milestones along the way are important:

  • So you can work on achievable goals: the project itself may seem quite overwhelming when looked at in its entirety, but, when broken into chunks, your team may find it more straightforward to navigate.
  • To see how you’re tracking: if you just set yourself a single, end-of-project deadline, you might think you’re perfectly on schedule, only to find out too late that you’re behind where you need to be. By setting a series of milestones along the way, you can keep a closer eye on your overall progress, and get back into gear if things are moving too slowly.
  • To provide a point of communication: if you’re working with others, mini milestones can provide an opportunity to reconvene with the colleagues you’re working with to check that everyone is happy and knows what needs to happen next. However, remember that this communication doesn’t necessarily need to be a meeting, an email or IM can serve the same purpose for project catch-ups.

It's worth taking the time to plan, even if you're worried about how long this is taking.

4. Prioritise and plan

When you’re working under pressure, it can be tempting to jump straight in and start putting pen to paper so that you have a feeling that something is getting done. However, the headless chicken approach is more than likely going to come back to bite you, particularly if you’re working on a complicated project with lots of moving parts. 

It is, therefore, important that you sit back and take a bird’s eye view at the very start to assess the order in which things need to be completed so that you have an efficient workflow throughout.  For example, it might be that one element of the project can’t be completed until you have the results of another, and you may find yourself encountering problems that could have been easily avoided with a bit of careful planning.

5. Block out time when you won’t be interrupted

We’re all used to using Google Calendar to arrange meetings with other people, but you can also use it to make clear that you’re busy working on something and don’t want be disturbed.

Simply use the shared calendar that your colleagues can see, and block out the amount of time that you want to, and label it something like “Working - not available for meetings”. This will make sure that your colleagues know that, during these times, you will have your head down working on the project, and that they should book you for meetings at other times.

It will also help you to stay to task yourself, because you know that there’s nothing that will disrupt your flow, and that there’s nothing else you should be doing.

How to set achievable deadlines at work

Sometimes, a deadline will be handed down to you from on high, with no opportunity for you to provide input on how achievable you think it is. However, it’s increasingly common for senior managers to take a more consultative approach, whereby they devise project deadlines in combination with those who will be responsible for delivering the work. If you get this opportunity, here are some tips for setting achievable deadlines:

  • Break the project into smaller subgoals: rather than looking at the piece of work in its entirety, break it down into bite size chunks. By analysing every step that will need to be completed, you can get a better idea of how long each of these components will take, and thus when to set your overall deadline.
  • Talk to your team: if you’ll have a bunch of people working under you on delivering this project, get their thoughts on how long their respective contributions should take them. This is particularly important if this is a piece of work that will involve the input of multiple specialists, as these people will be able to provide a much more accurate estimate of how long they’ll need.
  • Build in some buffer: it’s important to think realistically about what could go wrong, or what could hold you up, and build in some buffer accordingly when creating your deadline. One way of doing this is to set yourself a soft deadline, slightly ahead of the actual final thing, and aim for this as a best case scenario.
  • Consider your other priorities: it’s vital you don’t get too tunnel-visioned when creating the deadline for one project. If you, or others, have other competing priorities, these need to be factored in.

What to do if you miss a deadline at work

1. Try to get ahead of this and be honest

Only in very rare circumstances will you be working right up to a deadline, unsure as to whether you’re going to meet it. Generally speaking, you’ll be aware that this is likely to happen before the moment itself arrives.

If you’re in this situation, we’d highly recommend you don’t keep it to yourself. While it might be daunting, it’s a good idea to let your manager know that you’re probably going to miss the deadline, so that you can start to plan your next move. This is much more preferable than waiting for the deadline to arrive and then letting your manager know that the deliverable simply isn’t there.

2. Apologise for the inconvenience

Holding your hands up and saying that you didn’t achieve your goal can be hard, but it’s important that you apologise for the delay. As well as being courteous, apologising when you break the news to your manager can drastically improve their reaction, because it shows awareness on your part that this mistake has impacted the business.

Apologising also shows them that you care. If you were to make a habit of missing deadlines, it might be interpreted as a slack attitude towards your workload. Saying that you’re sorry can help to allay these concerns and demonstrate you’re still the team player you always have been.

3. Explain what happened

Crucially, here we’re talking about explanations, not excuses. While legitimate reasons, such as illness should be mentioned if they contributed to you missing the deadline, it’s a very bad idea to try and invent spurious reasons for missing the deadline which won’t hold water if they’re questioned. Even worse is blaming someone else for what’s happened. If you were the one in charge of delivering the project on time, the buck stops with you if that doesn’t materialise.

Not only does offering an explanation help your manager understand what happened, it shows them that you do as well. While missing a deadline is far from ideal, it does provide a useful opportunity to learn from what went wrong, and ensure you don’t make the same mistakes next time.

4. Choose a new deadline

Perhaps the most important thing you can do after missing a deadline is to proactively discuss how you’re going to get things back on track. This will involve carefully considering the other plates you have in the air, and perhaps moving some things around so that you can prioritise this project.

While the temptation, after missing a deadline, is to try and tick this project off ASAP, you need to make sure that you agree to a new deadline that you can actually meet. The only thing worse than missing a deadline once is missing a deadline twice.