Crushing deadlines: a pro’s guide to prioritization and time management
Professionals everywhere struggle with efficient time management. Prone to procrastination, they wait until the last hour to get things done. I, similarly, find myself working late hours not because I’m overburdened with work but because I fail to keep my priorities in check. Often, the last minute scramble causes both anxiety and mistakes.
To help workers, myself included, consistently crush deadlines, I spoke with entrepreneurs, consultants and creative professionals to discover their strategies for avoiding pushed deadlines and hastily produced deliverables.
The timeless art of timeboxing
“Something I’ve found works really well is setting deadlines and timeboxing the work to be completed,” says Alex Berman, Chief Marketing Sumo at lead generation business InspireBeats. “For instance, if you have a blog post to write for a client and it should take one hour to outline and one hour to write, schedule each on Google calendar.” Sometimes, overthinking a project can cause you to be distracted and feel self-doubt, which collectively stop you from accomplishing anything. Instead, with timeboxing, you set a fixed amount of time to complete a task and, generally, it gets done so you can move on to bigger and better things.
Berman explains, “The amount of time a task takes to complete is usually equal to the amount of time you give it—and I’ve found timeboxing has reduced the amount of time per project by a lot, saving 15-20 hours per week and helping to hit deadlines more effectively.”
Allocate time for brainstorm sessions
Even though a project may seem straightforward with clear deliverables, people inevitably get stuck. To ensure she meets her deadlines, Rosie Brown, creative project manager at Sterling Communications, a tech PR agency, makes sure to “Estimate how many brainstorms may be needed in a project. It’s easy for a team to feel at a loss and call for a brainstorm or a sync whenever a member responsible for a deliverable is stuck or wants to continue thinking of ideas rather than executing on just one. However, that can quickly eat up budget.” By accounting for project-related meetings in your work schedule, you can set reasonable deadlines that give you enough of a buffer to develop, execute and revisit amazing ideas.
Make public commitments
“Committing publicly to a deadline adds an additional layer of pressure (to yourself or others),” insists Mike McRitchie, a small business consultant. “And as we all know from doing term papers in school, knowing you have a deadline seems to increase the urgency, even if it is last minute cramming. No one likes to have to explain a miss.”
Often, the simple exercise of telling someone else what you plan to do and when you plan to do it triggers an emotional response that forces you to set aside all other distractions to complete the task at hand so that you may “save face.” People prefer to avoid feeling the guilt or shame of having to backpedal on their commitments, so stating your intentions publicly can be the perfect psychological approach to crushing your deadlines.
Untether yourself from email
According to a report by McKinsey Global Institute, workers spend 28 percent of their workweek reading and answering email. These days, we’ve all become quite attached to our inboxes, but in order to accomplish any work, Manar Alkassar, managing director of Helpling, suggests, “One of the easiest ways to save time when on a deadline is to get your emails organized and under control. Prioritizing is key. Skim an email and give yourself five seconds to find a reason to spend any more time reading it.” With fewer emails to fuss with, you can return to your task list and get back to doing real work.
An issue I constantly wrestle with is overbooking one day, underbooking another and forgetting which deadlines come first. Though I have a master to-do list, I sometimes avoid it. To better manage my priorities, life coach and human behavioral specialist Kerry Connelly of Vision to Mission advises following a ritual she calls “The Weekly Sanctuary.”
“This is an hour or so that happens before the week starts—for example, on Friday afternoon or Sunday,” she says. “The purpose of this time is to pay attention to what’s coming up—what projects are due, what appointments are on your books, and where you’ll be. This simple practice can help move you from a reactive to a proactive state and can easily save you two hours of lost time each week. It gives you the opportunity to see where obstacles will keep you from getting your work done and deal with them before they throw you off track.”
With this practice, Connelly says, “You’ll budget your time and your focus better because you’ll be aware of the time you actually have. By spending some focus and energy reviewing your upcoming week, you can better manage how you’ll spend it later.”
Develop an emergency response plan
Things don’t always go your way, and when situations turn sour, you will want to be prepared for whatever happens. To minimize the impact of inevitable catastrophe, Kim Shepherd of virtual recruitment firm Decision Toolbox recommends, “Practice ‘tsunami’ planning. Once a quarter, the management team should envision a variety of ‘what if’ scenarios. How to respond in case of a natural disaster, the impact of quadrupling business, loss of a key executive, etc.” That way, “When an unexpected event happens, management and employees have a plan in place and will not have to put all other projects aside scrambling to come up with a strategy from scratch.”
Deadlines aren’t the enemy. By eliminating distractions, budgeting time accordingly, and keeping yourself in a strong emotional state, you’ll surprise themselves with what you can accomplish. And when I follow these tips, I suspect I will, too.
What are your secret strategies for crafting high-quality deliverables on-time, every time?