Deadline Dynamics

October 2, 2016

Classic ClockI was having a discussion about deadlines with one of my students the other day, and it got me thinking about these strange things in our lives.

Deadlines have a bigger impact on the quality of our lives than we realize, but most people seem to accept them without challenging them. This article will put the spotlight on deadlines and suggest some ways we can handle them a little better.

I come at the topic from four different perspectives: 1) the arbitrary nature of deadlines, 2) self imposed deadlines, 3) deadlines set by others for us, and 4) setting deadlines for others successfully.

First, let’s realize that most deadlines are arbitrary dates without real substantive factual backing. For example, say your senior manager sets a deadline for the budget to be submitted by the end of the month. Will the world really stop turning if the budget is submitted later than that? I doubt it.

In reality, many deadlines are set so a higher level deadline (equally arbitrary) can be met. In the example above, the senior manager may need to have the budget in time to roll it up with a corporate level budget that somebody decided needs to be finished by the end of the quarter.

There are some fiscal hurdles in certain situations that give the deadlines more of a real feel, but when you hold them up to the light, you can see that nearly all of them are based on someone’s desire that could be changed, if it was really necessary.

If you use the “Five Why” technique with any deadline, you are sure to come up with some eye-opening conclusions. Simply ask why something must be done by a certain date, and when you get the answer, ask why that is the case.

Do that five times, and you will usually find that the specific deadline is not as firm as it appears. The answer to one of the last “why” questions is likely to be, “because we have always done it that way,” or maybe “because that is the way the boss likes it.”

What I am saying is that the pressure to meet most deadlines is something organizations usually impose on themselves.

On the flip side, deadlines are an essential ingredient for having things work as intended. Imagine if there were no deadlines at all. Precious little work would get done, because human beings have a remarkable ability to procrastinate from doing things that are not fun.

I think self-imposed deadlines can be helpful. Many of us impose personal deadlines that are figments of our imagination so we can accomplish the things we want in life.

I impose deadlines on myself all the time. It is a habit called “operating ahead of the power curve.” If I have a presentation to give in four weeks, I will convince myself that it needs to be given next week.

I create a self-imposed deadline to get the presentation prepared. It then sits in my computer for a few weeks before the presentation. Actually, I am still subconsciously working on it and “polishing the edges,” so the ultimate quality of the presentation is much better than if it was presented when initially completed.

There is intentional pressure on myself at the start to get the presentation done, then I can relax and not be in a panic just ahead of the due date.

The same philosophy is true with writing. As I am typing this article, there are five articles in the queue, all ready to publish, so this particular one will not get published for six weeks.

In the meantime, my beloved wife will help me make it more worthy of the reader’s attention, and I will think about it a few times more before going to press. My personal deadline to get this article done is today, but it will not be published on my blog for six weeks.

The deadlines set by other people generally cause us the most stress in our lives. This is especially true if the person or organization setting the deadlines has a history of being unreasonable, rigid, or confusing with them.

When you think of it, most people are juggling several deadlines on any given day and trying to sort through the different priorities.

To lower the stress of deadlines, make sure you have a firm agreement with the person imposing them and arrive at a reasonable priority for this work in addition to everything else on your plate.

If the task seems unreasonable, try to negotiate some leeway or some assistance, and express that you want the time to ensure a quality job. If it becomes apparent you will miss a deadline, let the person who gave it to you know well in advance. It is much easier to work through an alternate path if the problem is surfaced in a calm manner before the deadline.

If you wait until after the deadline to share the shortfall, all of the “reasons” you give will appear to be flimsy excuses, and you will lose credibility.

People instinctively know that getting things done on time is a prerequisite for advancement, so they really try to comply with deadlines, even if it means becoming nervous wrecks. When conflicting deadlines occur, either for one person or between people trying to work together, it is a formula for dysfunctional conflict.

Managers who establish deadlines for other people need to be careful that they are reasonable, clear, and not in conflict with other deliverables.

Here are some suggestions that may be helpful for setting deadlines for employees at work:

1. If there is a true need for something to be done at a particular time, state the reason when giving the deadline so people know it is not simply an arbitrary date.

2. When possible, give people a voice in establishing the goal for when work will be completed. Participating in the setting of a deadline makes it personal, so it becomes much more palatable.

3. Make the deadlines visible with some sort of chart or notes to back up the validity and avoid confusion.

4. Ensure the specific deliverable is crystal clear and not subject to interpretation. This level of clarity will avoid hard feelings later on.

5. Establish some milestones along the way, so people can experience progress toward the final submission.

6. Celebrate a job well done and let people know you are grateful for their efforts to meet the deadline.

7. Coach people who habitually fall short of deadlines and help them with more specific targets in the future. Let them know that demonstrating a solid track record of meeting expectations is really going to help their own standing.

8. Be flexible, when possible, so that changing priorities and conditions do not put undue pressure on people. Be alert to the signs of people feeling trapped by deliverables that are not really possible.

Working with deadlines is something we all do. When we seek to establish deadlines at work, following the above tips will reduce some of the problems we encounter.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Operate Ahead of the Power Curve

May 23, 2010

A wise mentor of mine used to have a saying that he often shared with me. He advocated I should “operate ahead of the power curve.” It took me a while to figure out what exactly he meant by that and a lot longer to appreciate how fantastic his advice was. I now try to operate ahead of the power curve always, and it reduces my stress level, improves the quality of my work, makes me less edgy with others, and allows me to display a more professional and controlled image. So, exactly what is this magic advice all about?

The advice is to always do the bulk of the work on a project or assignment immediately so you have it nearly completed well ahead of any due date. Then you can relax and complete the work at a less frantic pace to produce high quality work with very little stress.

Do it in school

I do a lot of university teaching where students are encouraged to write their assignments early in the week. Get the bulk of the writing done at least 1 or 2 days in advance of the due date, then finish up the editing after taking a break. By tricking yourself into thinking the paper is due on Saturday when it is actually really due on Monday, it changes the process dramatically. Now, the student applies significantly more effort early and can relax on Sunday. This improves the quality of student life and also leads to higher quality work. Reason: most students procrastinate until Monday afternoon to even begin writing. Then, they are in a state of panic while trying to concentrate on the organization and technical aspects of the paper. Little interruptions close to the deadline become huge annoyances because they distract the student from an important mission at a critical time. But if the work was already done two days earlier, then a last minute distraction can be accommodated with grace.

Do it making a movie

In Hollywood, when they make a movie, they have a saying for when the bulk of the movie is completed. They say it is “in the can,” which means the expensive shooting is completed and initial editing is done. What remains is the fine tuning to produce a finished product. This is done at a more leisurely pace, which helps improve the artistic creativity of the finished work.

Do it writing or consulting

I do the same thing in my writing and consulting work. For example, I am writing the bulk of this article on Thursday morning. I intend to put it out on my BLOG on Sunday evening, so I will have a draft to refine for 4 days before putting it out. I am doing some leadership consulting with a company in two weeks. I already have my materials organized and packaged up for the event. I will have a chance to soak on the material and make many refinements over the next 14 days and do so at a relaxed pace. That will make a significant difference in the quality of my work.

Do it in a tough spot

Let me share a graphic example of how powerful this philosophy can be. Several years ago I was a Division Manager in a large company. There were 4 Divisions in a large unit of the company, and we were told there would be a forced ranking of all our professionals in order to select who would be leaving as a result of a planned RIF. My Division was not the most powerful group, so I realized my people would be at a disadvantage when it came time for the rankings. As soon as I learned the ranking sessions would take place in two weeks, I immediately told all my Department Managers to drop everything for a command performance meeting that afternoon. We went into action immediately to map out a strategy. It became obvious that we did not have enough supporting evidence on the merits or talents of some of our professionals. We established a listing of what things were needed to have at our finger tips during the ranking process and set out to gather that information. It took nearly all of the two weeks but with a few days to spare, we stood back and looked at our organized data base. It was impressive.

Meanwhile, the other 3 Division Managers went on with their daily activities that habitually took up all of the time. They fretted and worried about the upcoming ranking process. The day before the ranking began, these managers hunkered down with select underlings to discuss their people. There was a lot of infighting and bickering among the various sub managers, and things became highly strained. They worked nearly all night frantically trying to get their ducks in a row. Meanwhile my managers and I were able to spend some quality time calmly focusing on our values so we would do the responsible thing the following morning.

During the ranking process, it became obvious that the other three Divisions had not done their homework well and were in a panic while my managers were well rested and ready. Whenever someone from another Division tried to downgrade one of our good people, we had a string of examples and hard data to back up our claims. They had very little documentation and only anecdotal stories as evidence. Finally one individual from the most powerful Division stood up slightly purple with rage. He said, “Whipple, the only reason your people are all coming out on top is because you were more prepared.” He was angry at me for being prepared? For once, I was speechless and said nothing.

Do it for yourself

You are probably saying to yourself, “How do you get the time to do the work well ahead of deadlines”? It is simply a matter of priority. It can be done if the will is there and the practice has become a habit. The peace of mind gained by having tasks well in hand long before the due date is well worth the early workload. The added benefit of higher quality work makes a huge difference in terms of one’s reputation.