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Whoosh! How to Stop Deadlines from Passing You By

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Speeding Tube trainIn the last few hours, I’ve realised that the four-day cushion I imagined I had for a particular deadline had been eroded. While I wasn’t paying attention, I had been RSVP’d for a yoga class, a book group, a wedding and a formal lunch. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but this time a) I haven’t had time to go shopping for a wedding outfit, and b) I was banking on having a nice quiet weekend where I could blast some Metallica and concentrate on getting stuff done.

Rather than panic stations though, I am at what I like to call Cold-Blooded Pragmatism. If I am going to get this project done, I’m going to need to reconfigure the way I work and do things a little bit differently for the next few days. Here’s a handy guide to how you can blitz a deadline without becoming a nervous wreck.

Cut out the distractions
If you’re anything like me, you don’t work on one task at a time; you may have several activities on the go at the time. But when it comes to crunch time, you don’t have time to be messing around with anything that doesn’t help you get the job done. So, if you usually check your emails while doing your latest sales report and composing LOLcat captions, cut out the email and kitty pictures. You’re only getting paid for one of those things so focus on that. The same goes for social media: give Twitter and Facebook a rest for now; the world will keep turning while you’re busy at work.

Decide what’s important
Unless the deadline you have to meet is relatively simple and routine, it probably has more than one component. Which is the most important? Which can be left until the last minute? Now is the time to prioritise: tackle the most important issues first before dealing with the small stuff. Don’t be tempted to try to do everything at once; that is one way to get distracted and led off-track by issues that could be dealt with later. Work your way down from “Critical” to “Desirable but not essential” and you stand less chance of missing out something important.

Torture yourself
Of course, now that you’re not working the way that you are used to, it can seem tempting to slip back into your old habits once you feel you’re into the swing of things. Don’t. Again, that way lies distraction. Believe me, I once ended up having a massive IRC argument about the merits of various French poets when I was supposed to be writing my thesis. All I had wanted to do was to look up a couple of references for my bibliography. So don’t go off-piste once you’re working. You have a deadline to meet, remember.

You can treat yourself in other ways, however. If you don’t normally work with music, turn your speakers up and get your finest motivational tunes on the go. If you usually never snack at your desk, have something tasty to hand. I personally like chocolate-covered coffee beans and gourmet crisps. And I dose my water bottle with a slug of Ribena too.

Procrastinate for profit
Being human beings, we do need breaks occasionally, so don’t beat yourself up trying to pull a 12-hour stretch of laser-sharp focus. Take breaks. Fifteen minutes every two hours seems to work for me. I step away from the laptop, stretch my legs a bit, maybe look over my to-do list to make sure I’m still on track and then get back to work. Often, I find taking a quick break will give me fresh insight into whatever problem I’ve been wrestling with and can give me a boost when I get back to my desk.

Ignore your inner perfectionist
There are certain people (control freaks, OCD sufferers, me) who will tweak and worry at a project way beyond the point of rationality because they want it to be perfect. This wastes time, and isn’t useful. After all, you’re working on your project in chunks aren’t you? There’s no point trying to make each part of it perfect before you bring the whole thing together. Get what needs to be done done; you can worry about turning it into a masterpiece once you have all your ducks in a row.

Build like Lego
Once you have completed the various parts of your project, you can start putting them together and making sure that they fit together as they should. Make sure that the way you’ve arranged the project flows coherently, add in any extra information that needs to be included and ensure that references to disparate parts of the project lead to where they are supposed to. Only you know who is the final audience for your work, so remember to tailor your final presentation to the people who will be seeing it.

Use a buffer
Yes, you’re on a deadline, and yes, you are suffering from low-level panic about whether or not you’ll meet it. But you still need to have at least a couple of hours away from your work before you sign off on it, just so you can come at it with fresh eyes and go over it once again, checking for any overlooked mistakes or grammar howlers. The amount of time you need to do any checking or proofreading will depend on the size of the project, but it is imperative that you don’t go straight from working on major aspects of your work to trying to go through it all again. Even if it just takes a short walk around the block, take some time to clear your head before doing your final checks.

Motivation
We all have our vices. Mine is a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio and pizza. It is my traditional “Yippee! I’ve finished work!” treat. While you are working, hold this in the back of your mind. If you make your deadline, you get your treat. Trust me, it’s a good motivator. I have slaved through the night for the promise of a 2004 Argentinian and a thin-crust meat feast with extra cheese and mushroom (yes, I am a cheap date). If you are working so hard, it only pays to reward yourself when you get the job done. Line up something special, but be ready to cancel it if you miss the deadline.

At school, university and in my professional life I have known the cold sweat and neck tension that comes with a seemingly insurmountable deadline. I have had sleepless nights, caffeine psychosis, tearful panics and even one unfortunate incident involving a librarian and a malfunctioning photocopier that I don’t wish to elaborate on further. Now, as a nominal grown-up, I have found a system that works for me. And hopefully, it will work for you too.

[Image by JaimeLondonBoy]

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