Deadlines Hard For You To Keep? You're Not Alone

If You Struggle To Meet Deadlines, Here’s How To Help

August 24, 2021 Updated September 7, 2021

Businesswoman working overtime late at night at the laptop. She is browsing paper documents, using a laptop
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When you hear or see the word “deadline,” what happens to you and your body? What do you think? Does your mind wander and your hands shake? Do you break into a sweat, with beaded droplets dripping from your forehead? Or do you snap into crisis management mode? Are you immediately productive — solving the problem at hand? If you fall into the latter category, it turns out you are not alone.

Most of us think we can keep deadlines. Our brains make us believe we’ve got this and are right on track. But that doesn’t mean we are adequately prepared to meet said deadlines. A recent study found that most individuals struggle to meet deadlines, even if they thought the matter would not be problematic.

The study, conducted by Roger Buehler, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, was done on a group of students. Buehler and his peers as asked 37 college seniors to make three predictions: the date they would submit their thesis “if everything went as well as it possibly could,” the date they would submit their thesis “if everything went as poorly as it possibly could,” and their best guess for what their actual submission date would be. And their estimates? Well, let’s just say they were way off.

Less than 30% of those surveyed submitted their work by the date they thought they would, or the date that was the best estimate of when the project would be done, and the optimistic predictions were even worse. Students were off by an average of 28 days. Even the “if everything went as poorly as it possibly could” predictions were wrong. Students were still too optimistic. (Yes, really.) 

That said, there are things you and I can do to improve our time management skills and adhere to deadlines. 

Adults are more likely to take action when a deadline is upon them,” Chris Delaney, a life coach and author of ‘What Is Your Interview Identity,’ tells Scary Mommy.This is because a deadline in the future doesn’t create enough worry or concern to create action, with people thinking ‘I can always start that task tomorrow.’ But tomorrow never arrives, and as the deadline approaches, panic sets in.”

“To increase motivation to work on a task, the task must be broken down into several actions with each action having a logical deadline,” Delaney adds.

Of course, breaking a task down into small manageable chunks makes sense but, for many, the notion is abstract. We don’t know where to begin. But Lauren da Silva, a life coach in Waco, Texas, has some suggestions. 

“At the onset of a project, you should set time aside to gather as much information as you can about what it is you need to do, including who needs to be involved and how long different components of the project will take,” da Silva tells Scary Mommy.

“Once you’ve done your homework, you can create a timeline for your project, with multiple mini-deadlines along the way. Start as soon as possible, and complete the hardest task first,” da Silva adds, “as this will build confidence and help you feel like you’ve accomplished something. You should then plan to check in with yourself (and any other relevant stakeholders) at those mini-deadlines to assess the situation, i.e. did anything unexpected happen? Are things taking longer than you hoped? Does your original timeline need to be adjusted or do you need to compensate for unexpected hiccups some other way?” Staying on top of the task at hand will help you feel and stay in control. It will also help with things you avoid self-sabotaging behaviors, like procrastination.

That said, while it’s important to meet deadlines, it’s also important to stay humble and realistic. Most of us accept deadlines at face value, no questions asked. But it’s important to consider the scope of the project before agreeing to it.

“You can and should check in with yourself about whether or not you can realistically manage the project on top of all the other day-to-day commitments or other projects you have,” da Silva explains. “Do you need to press pause on some of these things so that you can meet your deadline? Can you realistically take on a new task?” Good project managers understand what they can do and what they can’t. They are also assertive — they know when, and how, to say “no.”