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July 3, 2023

Deadlines and Promises – a Mind Tools Coaches' Blog

Sarah Harvey


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I'm just going to put it out there. I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines.

I love the way a deadline helps focus my mind. Having a deadline enables me to plan my time and forces me to prioritize tasks – so I deliver my work to a high standard and on time.

My freelance work requires me to juggle several contracts simultaneously. Without deadlines, it would be virtually impossible to keep track of what needs to be done, and by when. I'd find myself making promises to clients that I couldn’t keep. And that would be very bad for my professional reputation.

Deadlines keep me on track and they allow me to prioritize, plan and perform well. And I'm not alone; anecdotal evidence suggests that most people like to work to clear and unambiguous deadlines. It helps everyone know what's expected of them and smooths the way for more effective teamwork.

Be Alive to the Downsides of Deadlines

The problem is, deadlines need managing. And when multiple deadlines clash, managing them effectively can become problematic. We hear people say they're juggling priorities or spinning plates when they're working on multiple projects at the same time.

Oh yes, we can see them doing their best to keep all their plates spinning, desperately going from one to the other to prevent a plate from smashing to the ground.

In reality, their plates are projects or pieces of work each with a deadline. A plate dropped is a failed project, missed deadline, or damaged reputation. Working like this may be manageable, or even motivational, in the short term. But long term it can become overwhelming and anxiety inducing, and result in poorer performance.

Rather than providing focus, having too many deadlines and unrealistic time frames often leads to no time to focus on the right things at the right time. We have to spend our time multitasking, doing "just enough" on each project to get by while taking extra time to manage everyone's expectations. It exhausts me just to think about it!

How to Make Deadlines Work for You

Love them or hate them, deadlines are here to stay, so it makes sense to make them work for us, not against us. Here's what I've found works for me:

  1. Set realistic deadlines and, where possible, challenge/negotiate any that are unrealistic.
  2. Plan what tasks need to be done and when, in order to meet the deadline.
  3. Allow some contingency for unexpected interruptions or emergencies.
  4. Communicate clearly to everyone impacted by your deadline.
  5. Don't overcommit or allow others to impose deadlines on you.
  6. Work smarter, not harder. Skipping meals, working late, and not taking rest will only work in the very short term.
  7. As soon as it looks like you're not going to meet a deadline, take action. Reschedule, replan, renegotiate, and recommunicate.

Promises, Promises

How does it make you feel when someone breaks their promises to you at work? Let down? Upset? Angry? Disappointed? Yep, I hear you!

Failing to keep promises to colleagues or to our boss can seriously damage our workplace relationships. But from time to time, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves unable to keep the promises we've made. This happened to me recently and I really hated letting someone down at the last minute.

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With the best of intentions, I'd overcommitted myself – only to find I couldn't possibly deliver on everything I'd promised, when I was expected to. I had no choice but to communicate the issue in the best way I could and explain that I needed more time.

I felt terrible; I beat myself up about it for hours. And I didn't like not being able to deliver on my promise and judged myself harshly as a result. The thing is, the person I'd "let down" didn't feel let down at all. Because I was able to communicate the issue clearly and in a timely manner, and offer a solution, they were very understanding and no harm was done.

I Promised to Learn These Lessons

There are two very important lessons here for me about making and breaking promises at work:

  1. We're often our own harshest critics. As long as we act with good intentions and communicate respectfully, people generally understand that life happens and are open to forgiveness. After all, who hasn't missed a deadline or broken a promise at some time or another?
  2. Broken promises every now and then are an inevitable part of working life. However, if we regularly break our promises to others, we'll be seen as unprofessional, untrustworthy and unreliable. When we approach our work and our deadlines by being organized, motivated, values-driven, and honest, people will trust that we did the best we could and will be willing to find workable solutions.

You may find the following articles helpful for reflecting on your own deadlines and promises. You'll need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member to see all of the resources in full:

How to Meet a Deadline

Keeping Your Word at Work

Managing Conflicting Priorities

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