How to Structure & Stick to Project Deadlines

In my post from earlier this week, I talked about the importance of breaking a large project into small, manageable steps. This is because the idea of beginning to work on step 1 of 20 of a project seems much more doable than getting started on one giant project.

An important thing to consider when structuring your work plan this way is to set and stick to deadlines for each of the smaller tasks. This is crucial if you want to be able to complete the larger project on time.

But where do you start? Defining your own deadlines can seem just as overwhelming as diving into a large-scale project headfirst.

I have often found that it’s helpful for me to work backwards when I’m developing project deadlines. I start with my absolute deadline or the date on which I want to submit the final version of my project and then work in reverse chronological order, identifying all of the stages that will lead up to that point.

For example, if my goal is to complete my thesis by the end of the summer, I start by identifying August 31st, 2015 as my ultimate deadline. I then identify and set deadlines, in reverse chronological order, for all of the steps that I need to take prior to reaching this goal. This could include setting a deadline for such stages as:

  • Final draft complete: Aug 31, 2015
  • 2nd full draft complete: Aug 1, 2015
  • 1st full draft complete: July 1, 2015
  • References, Appendices chapters complete: July 1, 2015
  • Intro, Conclusion, Discussion chapters complete: June 15, 2015
  • Literature Review, Methodology, Results/Findings chapters complete: June 1, 2015

These topic and deadlines are, of course, just for illustrative purposes. The timelines associated with your specific tasks will depend largely upon the nature of your project and its requirements, and the speed at which you and/or relevant stakeholders work. However, I have listed below some general guidelines that I have found helpful in the course of completing various academic and professional projects:

  1. Aim to have all of your work completed ahead of your actual final deadline. Typically, I aim for 1-2 full days before handing in a term paper and 1 week for handing in a large-scale research report (e.g., thesis, dissertation). This gives me some wiggle room if/when an unforeseen circumstance arises. Catch a cold two weeks before your thesis is due? No problem. You left yourself an extra 7 days in case something came up, so you’re confident that you can still get your work done in time to email it to your supervisor.
  2. Think about who needs to review your work before you submit the final version and schedule in enough time for them to provide you with feedback. It’s unrealistic and unfair to expect others to drop whatever they have on their plates in order to give you the attention that you might require if you’ve diverged from the pre-determined schedule. Of course, there is some flexibility to this. If you are a couple of hours (or even days, in some cases) late meeting a soft-deadline, then you can reasonably expect the person providing you with feedback to hold up their end of the bargain. If, however, you are many days, weeks, or months late with delivering on your work, then you may just have to wait for your feedback.
  3. When structuring your own deadlines, be realistic. You probably will not be able to crank out a 5,000 word paper in one night (at least not an intelligent paper), but you could very well be able to write 500 words in a day. Setting realistic and feasible goals requires that you first honestly reflect on your capabilities. For instance, there is no shame in acknowledging that it takes you x amount of hours/days to transcribe interview data. I don’t think that anyone is judging you for this. Others will, however, be annoyed if you overestimate your capabilities and then routinely fail to meet expectations. Also, and maybe more importantly, you probably won’t feel very successful and/or motivated if you’re constantly dropping the ball. So set yourself up for success by structuring deadlines that are an honest reflection of your strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Don’t be shy to ask for more time if you really need it. You’d be surprised at how understanding other people are (particularly Profs) when you ask for an extension. Most of the time they would prefer you submit something that is reflective of your abilities, rather than turn in a shoddy, hastily-completed assignment. Not only do they want you to succeed, but also (and speaking from experience) it’s way more enjoyable to read/provide feedback on well-crafted work handed in a day or two late than to read work that was created in the shadow of a deadline. Of course, you don’t want to make a habit of setting up deadlines that you ultimately break (see point #3), but if you’re just starting out on a particular step and you realize that it’s going to take you longer than you had expected, communicate this to yourself and to your stakeholders.
  5. Relating to the last two points: don’t be afraid to revise the deadlines that you’ve set. Remember that most of these are soft-deadlines that you’ve created in order to manage your own productivity and motivation. So be kind and honest with yourself. Be flexible: speed up when you’ve got the momentum and slow down when you need a little extra time to do a high-calibre job.

If you decide to try one of these strategies out, please leave a comment below letting me know how it’s working for you.

Until next time,