We’ve all dealt with it many times – the project gets behind and the pressure is on. Or something changes in the organization – a supply problem, a system is down, manufacturing is halted (you know what your crises are), and suddenly something needs to be fixed now. Or your boss gives you a priority project that is due in three days (or three hours).
I am describing stressful situations –and the stress is caused by the tight (or impossible?) deadline. Even the word is scary – after all it includes the word “dead.”
While there may be a number of things that might prevent some of these deadlines (or significantly reduce the problems they cause), that is mostly for a different day. Today I want to discuss strategies we can use when we find ourselves facing the deadline – how can we deal with it more effectively, and thereby reduce our stress and build our confidence? After all, doing those two things in themselves will get us better results.
So how can we deal with deadlines more effectively?
Take a breath. When the deadline arrives, your blood pressure goes up and your ability to think clearly likely goes the other direction. Stop for a second and take a deep breath. This moment will help you physiologically and psychologically. Take a breath.
Understand the context. In some cases (the production line is down), the context may be completely obvious. Many deadlines that show up are much less clear. When someone else informs us of the situation, oftentimes they don’t help us see the big picture (or assume that we know it). Oftentimes, with your perspective the deadline might not be as ominous, or you might be able to manage the work differently when you really know how this “problem” fits into that bigger picture.
(Really) understand the Customer expectations. So you have the deadline, but do you know what people need from you and the solution? Do you even know who will be using this outcome? Take the time to ask what people need and why. Doing this will help you define what really needs to be done, versus what you might assume is required.
Negotiate as appropriate. Once you really understand both the context and their expectations you might decide you need to negotiate the deadline or the expectations, or perhaps, armed with that information you realize that negotiation isn’t appropriate or even an option. At least now you know!
Remember the three legged stool. It is often said you can’t have something (a report, product or project) fast, cheap and at the highest quality. Everyone wants all three, but in most cases you can only get two of the three. So if speed is needed (due to the deadline), think about your tradeoffs between quality and cost. This realization may also help you in understanding and negotiating expectations too.
Think 80/20. 80% of the value comes from 20% of the effort. 80% of the results will come from 20% of the work. These are just two applications of the 80/20 rule that might help you better understand how to attack your deadline. When you are under time constraints, recognize that you will have to focus on the most important parts of the project or the outcome. Make sure the work you are doing provides the greatest return for your efforts.
Re-prioritize around it. The deadline is real, which means other work will have to be re-prioritized. Take at least a little time to re-prioritize everything else on paper. This exercise will free your mind to focus on what is most important now, rather than continuing to be thinking about all the other things you will have to do later.
Reflect afterwards. After the deadline is passed, make sure to learn from the experience. You might determine changes in processes or your routine that might reduce the number of future tight deadlines; but beyond that reflect back on your responses to and the choices you made as you worked to meet the deadline. It is quite likely you will learn something to make you more effective in the future. If you don’t make the time to reflect, those lessons may never be learned or applied.
This gives you eight ideas to proactively deal with deadlines. Any of them will help, taken together you have a comprehensive strategy for getting more of the right work done in the impossibly short amount of time available.
Some Final Thoughts For Leaders
Before I go – if you lead, manage or supervise others, there are two additional things I hope you will do.
- Share these ideas with your team. You aren’t the only one facing deadlines! Helping them learn some new strategies will likely help their productivity (and therefore everyone’s success) greatly.
- Remember that you might be the source of some of the deadlines! Think about (and even ask them for their feedback) about how often you are the source of the deadlines. Perhaps the best thing you can do is make sure you aren’t the cause of the stress, frustration and deadline yourself.