4 Ways to Deal with Deadline Pressure

4 Ways to Deal with Deadline Pressure

Working fast while under pressure is a valuable talent in the modern workplace, but for many people, having firm due dates can be overwhelming. In this post, we'll share some proven tips from authors, creators, and other high performers that will help you reframe deadline pressure as motivation, get organized, and hit your targets without them crushing you.

  • Train Meeting and Beating Deadlines

One of the reasons that you might struggle with delivering work on a deadline is that you haven’t had to do so since you left college or high school. If your previous jobs didn’t make many time-dependent demands, then perhaps you’ve fallen into a pattern of just getting things done when you can. Much like physical detraining in someone who has become sedentary for too long, you can become deconditioned from working toward deadlines.

In which case, it’s time to retrain this crucial ability. In order to successfully meet the expectations of others (like that boss who has started rumbling about your team’s need to hit deadlines in true Dilbert fashion), you can start to set yourself a kind of shot clock for certain projects so that you become better used to working at a swift yet sustainable pace.  

In his book Mastery, author Robert Greene recommends mimicking the approach of elite athletes who train so hard that competition almost seems easy by comparison:

You train yourself to concentrate in practice with double the intensity, as if it were the real thing times two. In devising your own routines, you become as creative as possible. You invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses. You give yourself arbitrary deadlines to meet certain standards, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits. In this way you develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those of others.

  • Decide on a Daily Minimum

When you’re dealing with shorter projects, you might simply need to steel yourself and blast through pressing deadlines. But when it comes to the completion of a larger, longer-range task, it’s all about consistency and pacing yourself so that you don’t pursue the race tactic that runners call “fly and die” – starting strong but then quickly fading as fatigue takes over.

As such, it will help you to decide what your upper limits are and then to dial these back a bit to find a realistic sweet spot for your daily output. This might require a bit of trial and error. Begin by thinking about a day on which everything went smoothly, you got into a flow state, and the work just seemed to come naturally to you for several hours. Then, on the other hand, consider a time when you had last-minute meetings pop up, colleagues interrupt you, and other distractions chip away at what you wanted to get done. Your ideal productivity target should likely be in the middle of these two extremes.

One way that writers do likewise is to set themselves a daily minimum. This could be a certain number of pages or a specific word count. For example, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene put down 500 words a day, children’s author Kate DiCamillo aimed for between 600 and 900, and Stephen King settled on at least 2,000 (though he supposedly finished one book, The Running Man, in just a week). English short story writer and novelist J.G. Ballard had this to say about day-in, day-out dedication, which you can apply to overcome any deadline: “All through my career I’ve written 1,000 words a day - even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.”

  • Mark Your Milestones + Identify Buckets of Activity

The outdoor activity orienteering requires participants to not only beat each other to the finish but to also reach every checkpoint (called controls by devotees) along the way. Pursuing a similar approach to any project can help you ensure that you stay on course as you progress toward the deadline. Another reason for marking out stepping stones in any project is that they keep you moving toward a specific target that can seem more concrete than the hazy mountaintop summit in the distance that is your final objective.

In a video for Big Think, podcaster extraordinaire Tim Ferris shared that once he knows what the overall aim of a project is and the ultimate due date for the whole thing, he works backward to identify every sub-task that he will need to finish. Next, he begins prioritizing the actions in each of these “buckets of activity” and re-orders the milestones if he realizes that some are improperly sequenced. Once this step is complete, Ferris places each bucket along the timeline and assigns its own start and end dates to keep himself focused and motivated.

Going back to tip #2 above, he then reduces his daily work expectations slightly below what he knows he’s capable of to set himself up for repeatable wins that reinforce his sense of self-efficacy. “You will feel successful because you’ve checked your box for success. And then very often you’ll exceed that for extra credit,” he said.

  • Just Beat It

When trying to plan out your path to a deadline, it’s logical to look at the submission date as the be-all and end-all. But the trouble with mapping out your time with this in mind is that completing the final stages of the project might come down to the wire. If this is the case, any speed bumps in your schedule or last-minute changes to the requirements could prevent you from finishing up when you’re supposed to.

Another common challenge people face is the ambiguity of the self-imposed deadline. This happens when someone asks you, “When do you think you can have this done by?” The temptation here is wanting to seem both capable and swift, which could lead you to giving an answer that’s at best overly ambitious and at worst completely unrealistic. Instead, it’s better to under promise and over deliver. So if you initially think, “I can finish this project by next Wednesday,” pause before replying and walk that back a bit. Perhaps you could finish midweek if all circumstances go your way, but it’s safer to respond, “How about by the end of next week?” This way you will have a couple of extra days of breathing room, and if your initial estimate was accurate, then you’ll make yourself look good by exceeding expectations.

Legendary cartoonist Scott Adams has made a lot of jokes about deadlines in his Dilbert comic strips. But in his own career, he takes deadlines far more seriously than his hapless office worker creations. He always aims to hand in work early, which ensures that he never has to rush at the last minute to complete his tasks. “There are always deadlines I have to meet,” he said. “I don't let myself get too close to the deadlines, so it's not like I'm just sweating bullets or anything if the clock is ticking. I never let myself get in that situation.”